May 5, 2019

“The Lighthouse,” A Short Story by Derrick R. Lafayette

“The Lighthouse,” A Short Story by Derrick R. Lafayette

Featured Image Photo Credit: Wikipedia. West Quoddy Head, in Quoddy Head State ParkLubec, Maine, is the easternmost point of the contiguous United States

A clump of snow slid from the plunging power lines and splattered atop the coffin. Utility poles leaned on both sides of the road. When Maverick looked up, the empty white sky was blocked by rubber cables. For miles ahead, the snow sparkled untouched. No tracks, nor footprints, completely uncharted. Behind Maverick and Goose were two sets of footprints and sled marks. Thick rope was cutting into their shoulders, dragging the wooden tomb. Its imprints creased the burly coats they’d been wearing for two months. Goose pulled down his wool scarf. The first exhale billowed into a cloud of frost. His nose was beet red, poking out from a black garden of unkempt facial hair, dripping with sweat. A limp rolled cigarette dangled in his mouth before he added the flame.

“So, how’d you do it?”

Maverick struggled to catch his breath, wheezing between the coughs. When he pulled at his wool scarf, a thin line of blood ran down his nose. The scarlet spread into his thick black mustache, making his hair look reddish brown.

“Well, we’d been talking about it for months in advance. She chose the diamond. I was never good at fashion and all that,” he coughed into his glove.

“No shock value, huh? Marsha put me on a damn deadline. Counting down the days to our fourth year together.”

“She seemed like the type. No offense.”

“None taken. I made her wait past the deadline. Let that fury brew. You could’ve cooked hamburgers on her forehead.”

“She the type to grab the kitchen knife, too?”

“Nah, she never was a good cook.” Both men laughed a bit, and their clouds of frost combined. “I shocked the hell out her, front of her whole family.”

“That’s nice. Women love surprises.”

Goose let the cigarette fall in the white snow. He tugged on the rope, readying his grip to pull. Maverick’s chest rose and fell; reluctantly he did the same. 

“You ready?” Goose said.

A strong gust of wind shot down the road, hitting them directly. Maverick squinted to look Goose in the eyes before nodding his head. Like oxen, the two men pulled the rope attached to the sled with the wooden coffin on top. Carved into the wood read:

Lawrence McKay, widower, father of two

A blanket of tiny snowflakes began descending from the sky, collecting on the ten-inch-high pile below. Their destination was far into the vanishing point, a tiny blip on the white horizon. Everything was about reaching a lighthouse near the coastline. The two men picked up the pace and within ten minutes, the coffin was covered in snow.

Maverick’s knee buckled at the top of the hill. He caught himself in the fall, sticking his arms out. Goose let the thick rope sink into the snow. He stretched his back, lowered his scarf, and let another cigarette dangle. Maverick desperately gasped for air, coughing up phlegm. Goose stayed quiet, allowing the smoke to escape through his nostrils. He peered down at the cityscape below. All the abandoned buildings. Streetlights lying in the streets, trees resting with them. Car roofs popped randomly out from under the snow. A nearly buried sign that read:

Welcome to Bonebury

Population 120,365

The entire world a sheet of white. Not a soul below the hill. Once again, no footprints, no wheel tracks before them. Goose gathered both ropes, placed them atop the coffin. He patted Maverick on his back, offered his hand in assistance. Maverick shook his head, and slowly climbed on top of the coffin.

“I pushed last time,” he said.

“Fair is fair,” Goose responded, before nudging the sled over the edge. 

He sprinted after it, snow exploding near his legs. Maverick pulled him on the coffin, right as the slope went deep, and they took on speed. For a glorious one-hundred-eighty seconds, neither man had to walk. Riding into Bonebury on the coffin of Lawrence McKay.

The sled came to a halt, stopping in front of an abandoned brick church. The huge cross on the roof had snapped and now lay flat in the parking lot. The long, snowy staircase was littered with baby strollers, hard-bottom shoes, and ruined Bibles. Sticking out from the blanket of snow was a crown of brown fur. Goose grabbed it, looked: a one-eyed teddy bear. He stared at the missing eye, the array of strings jutting out. A thick snowflake landed on its nose, melted into the cotton. Above, the blizzard raged on, and visibility grew worse.

“Did you have any kids, before all this?” He waved his hand at the desolate city.

“Lisa was barren, but the dogs made up for it.”

“Hmm, Marsha and I had twins.”

“Yea? So what happened?”

Goose realized he was out of cigarettes. He dropped his backpack, unzipped it, and put the teddy bear inside. Before closing it, he whipped out a silver flask. Maverick waited patiently for the answer, watching Goose slowly gulp the harsh, warm liquor.

“Same thing that happened to Lawrence,” he stuffed the flask in his pocket. “Let me know when you’re ready.”

Maverick’s knee popped when he bent it standing up. He wiped the blood from his nose onto his collar. The wind came in strong, cutting straight through his coat; he felt every prick of the unrelenting cold. Soon, all of Bonebury looked like the inside of a snow globe. Another Nor’easter on its way. Maverick could feel it in his body. Similar to a pain people feel in rainstorms.

“My headache’s back. I’m only mentioning it in case I get snappy. Nothing personal, Goose,” he bent his other leg and like clockwork, that knee popped as well. “Think anyone’s alive in Bonebury?”

“No, just those in the lighthouse. That’s what the letter said. So far, every word’s been true.”

“You know I got it, right?” the inflection in his voice meant it wasn’t about the letter.

“Yea, I know you do.”

“If I air-swigged the bottle, technically, my lips will never -”

“Can’t risk it, Maverick. And I can’t share it, nothing but a few drops left. Besides, you’ll last longer without it.”

“I’m not sure I want to.”

Goose looked at him. All six feet, two hundred pounds of him. He gripped the rope, signaling it was time to go. Maverick covered his mouth with his wool scarf, stained with blood droplets. He grabbed the rope and never made eye contact with Goose. When he walked forward, tugging the rope, Goose didn’t move. Confused, he glanced at him, pointed to the city, and pulled again.

“I want to make this clear, right now. There’s only enough room for one body in that coffin.”

“Lucky him.”

They trekked deeper into the city, marveling at the historic landscapes. A bell tower that was still standing in the center of downtown. Whenever the wind blew hard enough, it would ring in a harrowing E flat. Famous coffee shops with glass walls shattered into crystals so small, one could mistake it for frost. Frozen water fountains, with long icicles on the chins of stone cherubs playing harps. Schools were missing letters in their names. Fallen skyscrapers, poorly architected and unable to withstand the harshness of the ongoing blizzards, blocked route after route, causing the men to zigzag throughout the district. On the side of a dilapidated brick wall, written in graffiti, the message:

What’s worst? The Black plague or The White plague?

Finally, they located a path on the train tracks. The train itself poked out from the frozen lake, the water so clear one could see the sunken cars beneath the sheet of surface ice. Like a mechanical snake stuck in time.

Up ahead was another incline. Goose pulled down his scarf but was unable to share a syllable. Maverick simply grunted, tugging with all his strength. Goose lowered his head and joined him. The two barely made it, feeling frozen grass crunch beneath their feet as they reached the brow. Straight ahead, towards the edge of the city, stood the lighthouse, protruding from the earth like a red and white stripped finger. Shining its light on the ocean near the coastline. A giant eye desperate to find life. Just like the letter said.

Goose let the rope go and sat on a flat rock. The sky above grew darker. Maverick stood there, still clinching the rope. Goose put out an open palm to him, signaling a five-minute break. Maverick leaned against the coffin, glancing up at the ghostly white sky.

“Pretty sure, with the frostbite and all, a few of my toes are broken,” Goose said, swigging from the flask.

“You said that yesterday. By now, it’s probably autoamputation.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Spontaneous detachment of an appendage from the body.”

“Where I’m from, we call that early retirement.”

They laughed.

Maverick found a tree stump to squat on near Goose. He coughed badly and covered his mouth. Goose handed the flask to him.

“Finish it.”

Maverick looked at it, then at Goose, before downing the liquor. He smacked his lips loudly and hurled the flask towards the city below. Goose pretended he was holding a shotgun to shoot it out of mid-air. Maverick made an explosion noise with his mouth. Goose turned the pretend shotgun on Maverick and fired again. Maverick fell backward off the tree stump, landing on the snow. When he stood up to look at him, Maverick was laughing, making snow angels. Goose joined him, and both men watched the sky transition to full darkness. For a blissful moment the snow ceased and the wind stopped. They basked in the silence, overjoyed. Wondering what would happen after the lighthouse. If everything in the letter was real. If the vexing journey was worth frostbitten toes.

Maverick sat up first. Goose followed and they continued on their passage down the hill. Then they were finally upon it. The lighthouse stretched into the heavens. Resting above a huge piece of rock that edged the frozen sea.

“We made it,” Maverick said between coughs.

“Looks like it.”

“What’s the boy’s name again?”

“Xavier.”

“Xavier McKay.”

“When it’s your time, I’d be honored to take you back to your dogs,” Goose smirked.

“Have me cremated first. Otherwise, I’d be dog food,” he joked back, his smile a red hue on his teeth.

“If I go first, lay me flat on my back and let the snow cover me whole.”

“No dogs to go back to?”

“None at all.”

Maverick opened his book bag, pulled out two sausage links. They ate at the foot of the lighthouse, inches from the door. Procrastinating, both a bit frightened about going inside, chewing slower than normal. Far in the distance, shadows were walking across the frozen sea. Fishermen were trying to make it to the shore. Grabbing onto the person next to them for balance, slipping every other step. Goose yelled out to them,

“HURRY UP BEFORE THE FOOD RUNS OUT!”

“THERE’S ONLY ONE MORE BLOOD SAUSAGE LEFT, AND I AIN’T

SHARING! DON’T LISTEN TO THIS JACKASS!”

“IF I WERE YOU I’D TURN BACK AROUND!”

Their joyous laughter echoed in the darkness.

“There’s more than one left, right?”

“Of course,” Goose revealed his own sausages in his backpack. “But by the time they get here, the sun will be coming up.”

A strong thud hit the wall as the lighthouse door flew open. Maverick dropped his food, and it tumbled down over the short cliff. A thin young man, covered in worn, shabby, garb, stepped outside. He had long black hair that shielded his face, and his arrival seemed to bring back the harsh cold winds. He dropped to his knees when he laid eyes on the coffin. Goose finished eating and walked over to him.

“The White Plague took him quick, from what I heard.”

“Coffin’s been nailed shut since before we got it. The body’s in the best shape you could ask for.”

“Thank you . . . we must -” the thin man couldn’t finish his sentence. Instead, he went into a violent coughing fit.

Goose and Maverick looked at each other with confused eyes.

The thin young man finished and cleared his throat. “Thank you. Please, let’s get it upstairs.”

“It?” said Maverick.

Carrying the coffin up the spiral staircase was cruel punishment for Maverick’s knees. The plight seemed infinite until the thin man kicked open a wooden door at the top of the stairs. The coffin was carefully placed on the floor and pushed. Inside the room were tables filled with beakers, tongs, Bunsen burners, and boiling flasks. Liquids of all colors, ranging from purple to blue to burgundy. The thin man grabbed two hammers and handed them to Maverick and Goose, claw-side up.

“Quick, remove the nails.”

“You’re taking out the body?” Maverick asked.

“There is no body,” the thin man confessed, scrambling for a third hammer.

“Are you Xavier McKay? Son of Lawrence McKay? Writer of the letter?”

“I’m afraid everything in that letter is a lie. It was the only way to hire you. I have the money, that part is true.”

“What’s in this coffin?” Goose inquired, gritting his teeth.

“The cure!”

Goose doubled over laughing, slapping his knee, almost in tears. Eventually he stopped and held his stomach, but every time the thin man attempted to speak he laughed again, drowning him out more and more dramatically, until the laughter sounded like madness.

“You hear this chicken shit, Maverick?” he leaned on his shoulder, all smiles. “The White Plague has no cure. Take a look around, doc. Only footprints in the snow is ours.”

Maverick pushed Goose’s hand off his shoulder.

“Maybe he’s telling the truth, Goose. Maybe there is one. You don’t know everything,” Maverick mumbled.

“You sound like Marsha, gullible, naive. You’re right. I don’t know everything. But I know that much.”

“I’m Lawrence McKay,” the thin man interrupted.

Silence blossomed between the three men. The only sound was the cutting wind outside. Maverick’s eyes ping-ponged from the coffin to the thin man, briefly believing him to be an apparition.

“You the body we been slaving for all this time? Dragging all the way to the coast for forty-five days?” Goose said.

“Please, let me show you.”

All three men pulled out the long nails and pushed off the top. Inside the coffin were yarn, hay, and cloth surrounding big jugs of liquid. Maverick’s jaw dropped and Goose flexed his neck to the side, in awe of what they saw. The thin man scrambled, began picking up the jars, mixing their contents with the other chemicals, concocting a potion. Maverick and Goose watched him work, tweaking the beakers, heating the flasks.

Out of a dark corner came a high-pitched sound of coughing. The thin man’s ears perked up and he rushed to the corner, letting one of the boiling flasks bubble over the top. Maverick rushed towards it and took it off the flame.

“Don’t touch that, Maverick. It’s probably poison.”

“Sometimes you don’t make any sense!”

The thin man carried the tiny boy from the darkness. Feeble, malnourished, sunken dark eyes, dried blood on his lips, no older than ten. The thin man caressed his hair. Tears bubbled in his eyes. 

“Just hold on a little longer,” he said as he placed the back of his hand on the boy’s forehead. “You’re burning up.”

Goose’s face blanched; he started rubbing his coat, scanning the rest of the room.

“That boy’s your son?” he asked painfully, without looking at him.

“This is Xavier.”

“I’ll hold him,” Maverick said, moving his arm under the boy’s head. 

Lawrence showed his gratitude, then went back to finishing his chemical work. He opened a drawer beneath the wooden table top. Two syringes rolled out. He loaded one with an aquamarine liquid, then turned back to his son. 

“Lift his head,” Lawrence ordered, and stuck the needle into the child’s neck, pressing his thumb on the plunger.

Maverick witnessed the whole ordeal in a state of wonderment. A fireworks display of miracles. Optimism surged in his old bones. Deep in his gut, he decided to believe in the cure. To believe in Lawrence. They laid the boy on a bed of blankets, and he didn’t make any more noise. But as the silence grew and Lawrence prayed, you could hear him wheezing through his nose.

“Thank you,” Lawrence said, reaching into the same drawer where the syringes had been and taking out an envelope. “Here’s the money. It’s all there, just as promised.”

Goose snatched it from his hand. “A liar is a liar,” he replied, thumbing through the dollars. “Ok, come on, Maverick. Let’s get back on the trail, make some good distance before sunrise.”

Maverick lowered his head, coughed into his hand. When he opened it, he saw a small pool of blood in his palm.

“Goose -”

“Don’t even say it.”

“Yes, please, stay,” Lawrence butted in. “I could use the support before the others come.”

“What others? You got more kids in here?”

Lawrence struggled to pick up another heavy jar from the coffin. Maverick came to his aid, smearing blood on the side of the glass. Together, they began concocting another batch. Goose felt betrayed, turned his sights on Xavier.

“Shit didn’t even work. So, after all this, you gonna stay with a liar, Maverick? Help him make magic?”

“If I step outside that door with you right now, I go on doing the same thing we been doing for the last ten years. Telling the same stories, picking up the new bodies. I’m tired. I’m going to die, Goose.”

“Of course you are! I am too, and so is he!” Goose pointed to Xavier.

Heavy pounding on the door broke the rising argument. A multitude of fists banging. Lawrence opened the door, but Goose pushed him out the way.

“Here come the corpses!” he screamed.

“Move out the way!”

The immense crowd of people, most emaciated, some bruised, some missing limbs, bombarded their way into the lighthouse and began climbing the spiral staircase. Goose mumbled curse words under his breath, stomping hard on the floor on his way past the immense crowd pouring in. He began wading through the sea of them, down the stairs, and as he got closer to the bottom, every face he passed looked like Maverick from different places in time. Ranging from their glory days to them being seasoned. From Maverick in perfect health, stubble on his chin, bright eyes, to Maverick with a thick beard, dried blood under his nose, and deep dark circles under his eyes. Every memory flooded his mind and before he let himself bawl, he made it downstairs and toward the door. The crowd left him behind, no one saying a word, no one introducing themselves. 

Goose stepped into the dark white abyss on the outskirts of the lighthouse. He sat on the ground, unzipped his bag, and pulled out the one-eyed teddy bear. He wrung its neck, pretending it was Maverick. A small tear grew on the side of its neck and a tuft of cotton sprung out.

“You dumb old fool,” he cried.

He buried his face into the bear, let the breeze carry his thoughts until suddenly his face jerked back and he coughed. A little spray of blood flew out his mouth. He wiped his lower lip with his sleeve and peered into the frozen sea. A great shadow appeared in the distance, multiplying in size, slowly taking on the form of humans. An army of darkness coming closer and closer.

***

About Derrick: I’ve had short stories published in Suspense Magazine, Lycan Valley Press’s anthology titled Subliminal Reality, Red Fez, Aphelion, Drunk Monkeys and others. I’m a huge fan of The Fictional Café, where I have another short story published as well. I’m currently working on a weird west novel.

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