PLAGUE OF THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER

Written by Eli Crown


 

Lottie follows in her grandfather's footsteps due to an intense admiration for lighthouses. After returning home from being away several years, Lottie uncovers a massive set of letters her grandfather wrote to her in hopes that she would one day return.

A storm rolls in and Lottie must now use her knowledge and her grandfather's memory to help navigators out at sea.


You can find the associated video here: https://youtu.be/c_dvDiMK43Y

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Our short of the month for December 2020 comes to us from writer Eli Crown. She wrote an amazingly personal piece and came to us with a vision for a short story.

Within the few weeks we had, we spoke about intent, themes, and the pull of her story. The emotional thread of following in a loved one's footsteps is a relatable dedication that we believe many people can connect too. That longing of wanting to reconnect with a loved one who has long passed, is part of the human experience.

Coupled with the visuals of Tiffany Breon, this story brings an endearing look at the familial dedication and love.

 

I had spent countless hours deciphering his handwriting. When the words started blurring together, I tossed the others that I had already poured over for the last several days, and reached into my hoodie pocket for my cigarettes and my lighter. After I opened the box I found my last cigarette. Of course. I shook my head at the irony of this being my Lucky.


I lit my Lucky and leaned my head back on the couch. I could really use some luck right about now, Papi. I took a long drag from the cigarette. What am I missing? I exhaled and scanned the room. I glanced at his office, the bookshelf, the bedroom, and at the jumbled pile of journals I had created on the floor. I got up and started pacing. Another drag. I roamed the space, examining everything. I entered Papi’s office. It was small but crowded.

 

Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with giant encyclopaedias spanning many subjects, all of the classic novels one could think of, and random nautical trinkets he collected throughout his journeys. Another drag. I ventured into the living room and looked at all of the pictures on the walls.


There was one photo of Papi and some of his pals in what I could only guess was the control room of this lighthouse. He wrote about the control room in his journals. Sebastian told me that nobody had been able to get inside for 25 years since Papi hid the key and left for America. The key. I scrambled to the pile of journals and pulled out the most recently dated of them all.

Papi once told me about how, for centuries, people would hide messages. He pulled out one of his old journals and flipped through to a page that appeared thicker than the others. He pulled out his pocket knife and carefully cut a slit down the edge of the page, revealing that it was, in fact, two pages.


This page had a drawing he did of our lighthouse. I flipped through the pages of the journal and, lo and behold, there was a thicker page. I marked the page and rushed to my bedroom. On my dresser, I kept a small mahogany box with a blue velvet interior. Inside of the box was the pocket knife with my initials that Papi gave me for my tenth birthday.


You really thought of everything, huh? My heart rate quickened and I took a deep breath. I sat down on the bed so that I felt a little bit steadier. I held my breath as I carefully cut the edge of the page like he had taught me. I knew it.


The page revealed a drawing of a beautiful old key, a set of three numbers, and a set of coordinates. I hear you, Papi.

 

I quickly pulled out my phone and looked up the coordinates on Google Maps. The map displayed a red pin on the shoreline by the lighthouse. I hurried to put on my boots and Papi’s coat, grabbed the metal detector, and I rushed out the door. “Siri, call Sebastian.” “Calling Sebastian.”

The phone started dialing and went to voicemail. “Sebastian, yeah, hi. It’s me. I think I know where the key is. I’ll text you the coordinates. Hurry. Oh- and bring a shovel!” I hopped on my bike and started pedaling at what felt like Mach 3 following the directions on my phone. When I arrived at my destination, I was at the opening of a cave. I had been to this part of the beach so many times and never noticed. I started the metal detector and began my search in the sand. Just then, Sebastian arrived with shovel in hand. “Hell yeah. You made it.”


“What are you doing out here? Don’t you see the storm rolling in?” In my frenzy to find the key, I hadn’t noticed how dark the sky was or even how strong the wind had become.

“It doesn’t matter. I think I know where the key is.” My search continued as I explained how I stumbled upon the coordinates and how I was following the metal detector to find the key. “He had been giving me clues my whole life. And I didn’t even realize it.”


Just then the metal detector started beeping like crazy. Sebastian started shoveling. He dug around two feet down before we heard the clang of the shovel hitting metal. I quickly dropped onto my knees and started brushing sand away so I could pick up what appeared to be a small, black, metal box, sealed with a combination lock. When it was finally completely uncovered I picked it up.

“We should really get inside. This storm is really picking up.” He was right.


“Okay. Let’s go back to the lighthouse and see what’s inside this box.” We rushed back inside and sat on the couch. I examined the box.


It was closed with a combination lock. “Can you grab the journal from my room? I think the combination to the lock is on the same page the coordinates were on.” Sebastian retrieved the journal and handed it to me. I flipped to the new pages to see the three numbers I had seen earlier. Papi taught me about combination locks, “Now, you turn the dial clockwise three times to reset. Stop turning it when the line here points to the first number.” 26. “Then you turn the dial back to the left for one full turn. Spin it counterclockwise one full turn, past the first number and stop at the second number.” 15. “The last one you turn the dial clockwise and stop at the last number.” 34.


With a click, the lock opened. Sebastian, who had been watching me, leaned in close enough that it made the hairs on my neck stand up. Carefully, I removed the lock and opened the lid. It revealed a key. I pulled the key out and looked at Sebastian with excitement.


“Well, what do ya know,” Sebastian stood up and extended his hand towards me. “Wanna go see what it opens?” Excitedly, I took his hand and we flew up the stairs of the lighthouse to the long-locked door of the control room. I slipped the key into the lock and nothing happened. A DECOY? Defeated, we walked back down the stairs.


“Now, that was just misleading.”


“You're telling me.” Think, Lottie. I picked up the box from the coffee table and examined it further. I noticed the left corner was peeling ever so slightly. I peeled the corner back to reveal an envelope with my name on it.


“Papi seems to have had a flair for the dramatic, no?”

“Facts.” I opened the envelope. A riddle? I read it aloud so Sebastian could follow, “‘I have keys but do not lock. I have space but have no room. You can enter but not come in. I stand upright and I am grand. The secret is not hidden but right at hand.’ I think I know what it means.”


“Excellent, because I am lost.”


“Hmm.” I inquisitively walked over to the grand piano that sat in Papi’s old office, Sebastian followed behind.


“Ooooh, I get it now.” I rolled my eyes at him in attempts to stifle a smile.

“I remember the way he used to play when I was little.” As I reminisced, I ran two fingers across the dusty keys. “He even paid for me to take lessons.” I giggled, “It didn't stick, but I think I remember-” I found the middle C key and pressed it. A clear note echoed through the entire lighthouse.

Then, the muscle memory kicked in and I noodled out Hot Cross Buns.

A prodigy.” Sebastian shot me a sly, half-grin and winked at me which made me laugh.


I proceeded to play Old McDonald. G, G, G, D, E, E, D. B- the key didn't make a sound.

“I think I remember Papi telling me something about this. He said that right before he left Ireland the middle B key no longer worked.” I recited the riddle again, “‘I have keys but do not lock. I have space but have no room. You can enter but not come in. I stand upright and I am grand. The secret is not hidden but right at hand.’ The secret is right at hand.”


I walked around to peer into the interior of the piano. Sure enough, the B hammer was raised. "You mean to tell me"- I tried pushing it down but it wouldn't budge. "That the key was here the whole fucking time, Papi? "

 

I lifted the hammer and something glimmered. I wriggled the object free and it was a key just like in Papi’s journal. I held it up so Sebastian could see.

Shall we try once more?” He extended his hand to me, again. We zoomed up the stairs and I put the key into the lock. I heard a click, turned the key and the latch released. “What are you waiting for, lass? Open the damn thing.”


With a push, I opened the door to a room with a 180 degree view of the raging ocean, machinery covered in old, burlap sheets, and a second stairway to what could only be the gallery. I flipped the light switch by the doorway. Sebastian and I went around the room and removed the burlap from the machinery. “Damn.”


“Damn, indeed.” I recognized the machinery from drawings in Papi’s journals and diagrams from the obsessive research I did when I was young. I flipped the switch to the operating panel. The whir of the machine powering up sent adrenaline through my veins.

“Uh- Lottie?” The sound of his voice became distant when I heard static come through the headphones connected to the radio.


“Oh, shit. I can’t believe this still functions after all this time.” I sat down at the chair and put the headphones on while I tried to adjust the signal to pick up anything that was coming through. I finally reached a broken up signal that sounded like voices.

“Lottie-”

“Shhh! I’m trying to listen.”


“Lottie you need to see this storm.” Just as he said that, I heard a voice over the radio clear as day.


“S.O.S. Radio systems failing. Cannot navigate. Please assist.” I looked out the window to see a sky, blackened by the clouds. The ocean looked furious. For the first time that night, the thunder rumbled through the entire lighthouse with such force it shook dust from the rafters above our heads.



“Shit,” I tried contacting them with the radio. “Hello? Can you hear me? Hello?” No response. Once I had realized it was no use, I quickly scanned the control panel for anything familiar. “We have to get this light on somehow.” My eyes darted across the room to the machine that controls the beacon. I flipped the light switch and nothing happened. “Ugh! Why isn’t it working?”


“How am I supposed to know?”


We both searched for a switch or something that would turn it on. Think, Lottie. Think. What did Papi teach you? I wracked my brain and could not think of a single time that Papi actually told me how to work the control panel. “Sebastian, Papi never taught me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”


“Not everything you know about lighthouses is because of Papi. You’re obsessed, Lot. Think smarter.” He was right. I had done so much research on lighthouses as a kid I knew I had done everything right. What had I missed? I looked at the back of the machine and followed the cords to the wall. Gotcha. The plug from the machine must have been pulled from the wall before Papi left. I plugged it into the outlet, flipped the switches, and pushed the button to start the light.

Immediately we heard a hum above us. After a few seconds, a beam of light began to shine out from the lighthouse across the sea. “Ah haha! Thatta girl, Lottie!” I let out a hollar of joy and threw my arms around him pulling him into a kiss. Before I had the time to process what I had just done, I heard another call over the radio.


“We see you. Radios restored. Please direct to dock.” I hopped onto the radio and spoke to them.

 

“What are your coordinates?” They responded. They were just barely off the shore from the port. I assisted them over the radio until they confirmed they reached the dock safely. It felt like I was holding my breath from the moment I found the key and had just been able to breathe again. We walked back down the spiral staircase of the lighthouse and we both sat down on the couch where we had started. There was an awkward silence as neither one of us knew how to continue from that point. I blurted, “Do you want some tea?”


“I would love a cup of tea.”


“I’m going to make some tea.” I got up and walked to the kitchen and filled the tea kettle with water, set it on the burner, and turned the burner on. I leaned against the small wooden table in my kitchen, biting my nails, waiting for the kettle to scream and break the second awkward silence.


“You were pretty impressive back there.” Sebastian’s comment jolted me from being zoned out. “Sorry.”

“What? No you’re fine. Sorry, I spaced. It was nothing, really.” I felt my cheeks beginning to flush.


“Are you kidding? You’re kind of a badass.” He shot me a half grin. “Papi would be proud.” I looked up at him and bit my lip, trying to conceal my smile.


“You think so?”


“Absolutely.”


“Thanks.” My eyes darted the opposite direction to distract from his stupid handsome face.

“So--” The kettle started screaming and I took it off the burner.


“What’s up?”


“Are we gonna talk about--”


“Mmh, do we have to?” I poured the water into two mugs.


“I suppose we don’t.”


“Green, black, or chamomile?”


“Chamomile sounds lovely.”


“Chamomile it is.” I took out two bags of chamomile tea and placed one in each of the mugs. “There’s honey and sugar in the cabinet by the fridge. Help yourself.”


I walked back over to the couch and held the warm mug in my hands. Outside the window, the storm had begun to clear up to reveal a vibrant red sunset. That gave me an idea. I set my tea down and got up. “Follow me.” Sebastian followed closely behind me up the stairs once more. We walked into the control room and I went to the tiny spiral staircase that I had seen before. We walked up the stairs and reached another door. I opened it and it led us out to the gallery. We walked out onto the balcony and the sunset washed over us.


“Damn.”

“Damn indeed.” I leaned against the railing looking out at a different ocean than I saw an hour prior. “So what now?” I looked at Sebastian who was already looking at me.

“What do you mean?”


“I mean, my whole life led up to that moment. There are no more clues from Papi. Nothing left to find or follow. I just-- I feel--”

“Lost?”


“Yeah.”


“May I tell you something honestly, Lottie?”


“Always the preference.” He chuckled at my snarky comment and continued.


“You have been following in your grandfather’s footsteps your whole life. It led you here and you were successful. Maybe his lesson to you this whole time wasn’t to be like him. I think he wanted you to be your very own person. And I think tonight you proved that you can do it.”

“You think so?”


“I know so. You panicked when you couldn’t think of something that Papi told you to make it work. But the research you did in your youth, your passion and intelligence allowed you success tonight. You did that on your own.”


“I did just plug it in, but maybe you’re right.”


“I know I’m right.” We laughed. “But what if I get it wrong next time? What if this was a beginner’s luck situation and-”


“Ah, yes. The Plague of the Lighthouse Keeper.”


“I’m sorry?”


“Oh, interesting. This is something Papi taught me, if indirectly.”

“Oh?”


“Your grandfather was the keeper of this lighthouse for as long as my father was alive. He relayed to me a story of sorts that Papi told him in his youth about the burden of being a lighthouse keeper. The guilt of not being able to save everyone and having to come to terms with it or let it drive you mad.” He paused. “Perhaps, Miss Keeper, you have found yourself plagued prematurely.”


I pondered his words for a moment and nodded in agreement. We stood there for a few moments before I noticed I was shivering. I had forgotten to grab Papi’s jacket before I came up.


“My jacket!” I turned to go down the stairs to grab it when Sebastian took his jacket off.


“Wear mine.” I looked at him and he gestured his arm out with the jacket again. I couldn’t refuse. I pulled his jacket on and he put an arm around me.

We watched silently as the sun went down over the horizon.

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