I Stayed in a Lighthouse Overnight
“You get used to the smell.”
The year was 1999. I was nineteen years old and dead broke. Most of my friends opted for the four-year state schools after graduation. Some went to private. Some went to trade and some to liberal arts and some fucked off to another country entirely. But there was a special place in the hot hell of my small seaside town for the local proclaimed low-lives who stayed at home after high school. My friends left me. My parents were bored of me. Unemployment wrapped its shameful tentacles around every aspect of my life. I needed income, and according to the flier, Lenny needed a partner.
“The Island is completely uninhabited,” he explained over the phone. “It’s not very big, acreage wise, and the soil makes it a nightmare for land developers. The only building still standing is the lighthouse. The State pays somebody watch it, which happens to be me, and I need a hand. Lot of hours for one old man.”
“The job can get pretty dangerous. I should warn you about that. We leave on my boat at sun down. We come back at sun up. Rain or shine, Saturday or Sunday, somebody has to out there watching that island.”
The prospect of a dangerous and intriguing work opportunity sure seemed a hell of a lot better than hanging out in my mother’s basement for another month. I was desperate for something new. I needed something new. Besides, I was an Eagle Scout, and I had a little experience as a park ranger cadet during school. The gig seemed perfect for me. I let Lenny know as much, but he didn’t seem all that interested.
“Won’t help you out there.”
We talked for over an hour or more about the island’s history. Centuries prior, Siders had been an important military foothold, used to keep an eye out for advancing troops. But decades of abandonment, dumping, and various other abuses left the luxurious foliage and pristine beaches to turn into diluted backwater. Some of the rich kids my age took their dads’ boats and used it for parties or drinking. It made sense the local government would want to keep people from destroying the island. It was halfway there already.
“I got the budget to give you $500 a week.”
The work itself seemed exciting. The pay sent me over the moon. I tried not to sound overeager. I was prepared to provide a resume, preferred contacts, all of that shit. I asked if he required prior experience. I asked if we needed any certifications. The words just sort of fell out of me like a desperate date. But Lenny just laughed.
“Not necessary, kid, but appreciated. Let’s give it a try on Friday. Trial run. I leave with my boat at six sharp. Rain or shine. See you then.”
“By the way, some folks say the island’s haunted,” he chuckled. “Hope that sort of thing doesn’t bother you.”
And just like that, I had a job. A creepy job, but a job, nonetheless.
My mom would be so proud.
The week moved by listlessly.
I showed up to the docks on Friday at 4:45 and waited in the parking lot for over an hour. Better to be extremely early than extremely late, I thought. I finally found my partner gearing up by the pier shortly before we were supposed to leave. He was hard to miss. Lenny was a giant of a man, over six feet tall, even with the humbling stunt of old age. He wore a faded old baseball cap, thick blue sweatshirt, and matching sweats. His face was covered by a matted grey beard that met equally matted white hair. His wrinkled skin cracked and calloused heavily on the hands. His entire demeanor fit for somebody who spent most of their time on the water. But other than that, he appeared unremarkable, at least compared to most of the folks around my town.
I strutted down the pier, stuck out my hand, and offered my most polite introduction.
Lenny ignored it.
“We got about twenty minutes until that storm on the horizon hits,” he pointed. “Time to get moving.”
I hesitated. The boat was an old single engine. Crappy stencil paint outlined the name (Stingray) and awkward decorations of a woman with big breasts on the side. The thing looked more inclined to sink into the sea than take us anywhere. Every step Lenny took shook the tiny frame like a bad dream.
“Two miles, nineteen minutes, and one engine,” he snapped. “Let’s fucking go.”
I hopped aboard the Stingray gingerly. The entire boat lurched to the right, but it steadied, after a moment. There was a cooler of beers tucked away to the right, and another one for water stored on the left. A bundle of ropes and pulleys occupied the back. Other than that, there was barely enough room for me to sit. Lenny hit the gas unceremoniously and I nearly went careening into the sea.
“Hold onto something,” he chuckled over the roar of the engine. “Unless you aim to go swimming.”
I grabbed an unoccupied section of bench and did as instructed. Salt water whipped into my eyes as we hopped up and down through the surf. The sky grew darker as ominous storm clouds gathered overhead. I wondered if we would make it in time, but the journey was thankfully short. By the time we reached the rocky shore of the island, a bout of thunder rolled its way across the choppy surf, and an even drizzle slapped our shoulders noisily.
“What’d I tell ya?”
I nodded respectfully. Lenny rushed his way through tying the boat up to the rotted dock. Then we hopped off board and made our way up the makeshift path.
The vanishing daylight made it difficult to see Siders in all of its glory. But the irregular flashes of lightning briefly illuminated the rows of plastic, debris, and shit stinking up its shores. The dripping water and horrid pollution did nothing to ease the overwhelming stench of rot and rust that seemed to follow everywhere. When we entered the Lighthouse, I fought desperately to resist the urge to vomit, and nearly lost the battle. My partner must have guessed as much.
“Hold your nose,” Lenny shouted over his shoulder. “Like I said, you get used to the smell.”
The base of the building looked like it might collapse at any minute. Cracked windows and heaps of debris lined the entrance. Rats and insects scurried past our feet. And the stench only seemed to get worse. Lenny gracefully led the way, like he had done it a thousand times, chatting the whole way through. I followed him slowly up the winding staircase and into the Lookout.
“Hold onto something, kid.”
We were greeted by a cavernous open room with peeling walls and uneven floors. Moonlight drenched through a small opening and illuminated a small concrete slab with some wicker chairs set up.. We were high enough to see the entirety of Siders Island. And then some.
“Not so bad, eh?”
I stood there and stared in wonderment. The storm had overtaken the sea by that point. Small, angry little waves reached up to smack against the rocky shore. The bouts of lightning and thunder created a picturesque feeling. I didn’t like it… I loved it.
“Told you,” Lenny chuckled while cracking open his first beer. “We could have been out in that shit.”
I nodded and watched the water move for a few more minutes.
“What now?” I asked. “Shouldn’t we get the floodlight going?”
My partner snorted through his beer.
“If you’re looking for something to do, this ain’t the right job for you, kid.”
“What do you mean?”
He laughed again.
“I mean we are glorified scarecrows. Kids see the boat at the dock and they know somebody’s home. If we hear a ship approaching, we shine the lights, but there’s no sense in wasting the battery now. Nobody’s here.”
Lenny took a loud slurp of his IPA.
“Grab a beer. Get yourself comfortable. It’s going to be a while.”
I grabbed a seat and helped myself to one of the drinks. The thunder grew more vicious in the distance. The rain continued to slap away at the exposed floor. The canopy of rock overhead provided some cover, but not much, because we were still getting wet.
“Relaxing,” my partner muttered. “Ain’t it?”
He was right. Nothing in my life at the time seemed more serene and perfect. The two of us sat in silence for a while. The hours passed by at a crawl. Eight turned into nine and nine drifted it’s way towards midnight. Eventually, I cursed myself for forgetting a book, or a CD player, or something to keep me occupied throughout the night.
“You never asked about the ghosts.”
Lenny’s voice caught me off guard. Inchecked my watch. We were closing in on one in the morning.
“I figured you were fucking with me.”
Lenny hesitated. He didn’t look scared, that would be hard to imagine on such rough features, but he didn’t look like he was joking either.
“Sometimes you hear stuff. Sometimes you see stuff. Most folks would attribute the spookies to the fact that we’re stuck on a hunk of rock out in the middle of the ocean. But… I don’t know, kid. You’ll have to see for yourself. Then you can tell me.”
“So you’re a believer?”
He looked offended.
I thought about my answer for a moment.
“I think if there really is life after death, it sure as hell should be better than wailing at people on a hunk of rock in the middle of the ocean.”
I couldn’t tell if he meant the response to sound patronizing. Frankly, I didn’t care. The exhaustion of the trip, the hike up the stairs, and the late hour made crashing more of an inevitability than a nicety. I reclined in my chair a bit and let the warm smell of salt water fill my nostrils. Then I let loose an obnoxious yawn.
“You need some sleep?”
“Yeah. Can we?”
“Don’t see why not,” Lenny muttered. “Never had a partner before.”
“We’ll take shifts. Now until three is yours. Three to six is mine.””
“And kid?” Lenny added. “Next time, you bring the beer.”
I laughed and looked down to find the cooler already empty.
“You got it.”
I don’t really remember passing out for the first time. I remember grabbing a towel to shield my eyes from the rain. I remember closing my eyes and listening to the sounds of the storm. And then that was it.
But I remember waking up to something tickling my toes.
The sensation jolted me out of my chair like a live-wire. I looked around the dark room. Lenny’s chair sat unoccupied by the ledge. The beers were gone. The water was gone. I was completely alone.
“Len?” I shouted. “Where the fuck did you go?”
After a moment of panic, my drenched companion poked his head out from the staircase.
“Cleaning up garbage,” he huffed. “You alright?”
I breathed a sigh of relief. I immediately felt embarrassed. My options were to tell another man the contents of my scary dream, or to just keep my mouth shut. The shit eating grin on Lenny’s face made me settle for the latter.
I fell asleep again.
I dreamed about school, and girls, and the usual worries of a hapless nineteen year old kid. I stirred occasionally to the sound of Lenny’s scraping chair and steady pacing. I missed my bed. I missed school, and my friends, and the comforts of a creepy ass room not completely exposed to a storm. I dreamed about finding a real job. A real career. Something that would actually make my hard working mother proud.
And then I felt it again.
The tickling started at the bottom of my feet and slowly worked its way up my legs. I was too scared to open my eyes. I trained my ears carefully. It stopped. I waited a little bit longer for it to start up again. Then I jumped up, fists flailing, ready to fight.
The room was quiet. The rain still fell. I looked around suspiciously. Lenny stared back at me from his chair like I had six heads.
“What the fuck, man?”
“Did you touch me?”
He looked disgusted.
“No. What? When?”
Lenny grunted and lit a smoke.
“Sounds like you got a visitor.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
My partner’s blunt expression remained unchanged.
“Oh c’mon. Maybe Casper just wanted to meet the new guy.”
“Look, I didn’t touch you, really. Probably just a bad dream, kid, new environment and all.”
“I know what I felt.”
“Okay. And what was that?”
I ignored him and looked around the dark room one last time. We were illuminated by a single light in a heap of blackness. Dawn still seemed a ways away. The worst of the storm had pushed its way past towards the coast.
I let out a long sigh. I was damned if one weird experience would ruin my first attempt at a real job. But I also wasn’t going to fall victim to a prank.
“Alright,” I muttered. “How much time do I have left?”
I dipped my baseball cap back over my eyes.
“See you then.”
I didn’t have to wait long for the tickling to return. This time, the sensation culminated in a stinging bite. I opened my eyes to find Lenny, teeth bared, gnawing softly at the flesh around my navel.
“What the fuck?”
I screamed so loud that the echo of my voice careened down the long metal stairs of the lighthouse. Lenny laughed through a mouth of blood and tried to hold me down. I fought back desperately before finally managing to slip out of his grasp. My pants were missing. My shirt was ripped and bloodied in inexplicable places. I turned to run just as Lenny reached into his knapsack for a long, sharp axe.
“Uhhh, kid, I lied about Casper.”
My bare feet found the cold metal of the staircase and my hands gripped the railing like a lifeline. I flew down the winding stairs while the horrible scraping of my partner’s axe against the walls echoed above.
“Actually,” Lenny laughed. “I lied about a lot of things.”
Survival instincts kicked in. I reached the bottom of the stairs in a mad rush. I sprinted my way, barefoot, down the path towards the boat. A crack of lightning illuminated the rust bucket drifting lazily in the shallow surf. I jumped on-board in one smooth motion and came to a devastating conclusion precious seconds too late.
I didn’t have a key.
I could hear Lenny laughing somewhere behind me. The old man couldn’t move as fast, but he really didn’t have to. Two miles of choppy water separated me from my only chance of freedom. I took a chance and kicked the Stingray’s engine overboard, jumped into the icy water, and started swimming.
The hounding rain and unending waves made it nearly impossible to swim. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting the psycho to give chase, but he never did. At least not that I could tell. I reached the shoreline in about an hour. Exhausted and waterlogged, I ran towards the road just as the sun peaked its way through the clouds. A cab picked me up right outside the side street to Pompio Beach. I told him to take me to the cops.
My conversation there confirmed what I already suspected.
The State never hired a security detail on Siders Island. The cops couldn’t even find any local records for a guy named Lenny. By the time they arrived to the Lighthouse, at my insistence, all evidence of my partner had disappeared.
But three different bodies were found buried inside.