Authors: Dennis Etchison
A palpable blackness passed over the lighthouse like giant wings across the moon, plunging her into darkness.
The switchboard blipped out, diodes and meters and light leaks from the vented heat sinks; her electric heater glowed brightly one last time behind its tilted grille before the wires cooled; fans whirred and hummed to a stop with the sound of trapped insects; the clock froze its scythelike hands in midstroke; transformers shut down, the music stopped. The hot water in her coffee pot boiled its last and began to steam silently, leaving only the subaudible ticking down of electronic components in the closed tower.
The reinforced concrete of the lighthouse shuddered and settled on its foundations.
Then there was only the pulse of the ocean on the rocks below.
She hurried back to the controls. She miscalculated and knocked over the coffee pot. It shattered at her feet, splashing warm water over her shoes. The exposed heating element of the hotplate irised out, closing on red, then orange, then iron black as it cooled down. She leaned down over the board and threw switches at random.
“Hello?” she said over and over into the microphone. She unscrewed it from its base and held it to her mouth, its metal screen bruising her lips. “Hello? Hello? Can anybody hear me?”
She went to the stairwell.
She stepped tentatively onto the first steel landing. Before her the stairs corkscrewed down into impenetrable darkness. She ran her hand along the rail, following it down and down.
Her foot struck a paint can on the cement floor. She had made it. She held her arms out in front of her like a sleepwalker and groped for the wall. The toe of her shoe was caught by a dropcloth. She kicked free. A mop head dove at her from near the door. As she sidestepped it, its matted tresses brushed her wrist.
The generator housing was clammy to her touch. She patted it down and found the rip cord. The previous owner had shown her how to work it in case the power failed, but that was a long time ago and she hadn’t paid much attention. Perhaps the gas had evaporated.
There was one way to find out. She grasped the cord and yanked it.
She tried to remember. There was a lever. Yes, there.
She pulled harder. The generator engine turned over but did not catch.
She set her knee against it and heaved with all her strength. A muscle slipped in her shoulder but she kept going. She yanked again, again. Ten, twelve, twenty or more times.
It would not start.
Nick and Elizabeth stood close together in front of the Coast Guard Weather Station.
Behind them, was the ruined interior of the building and its tiers of atmospheric analyzers and barometric measuring devices smoldering in ruins, tons of solid-state circuitry and useless protective warning equipment reduced to so many spoiled transistors and destroyed wiring. Before them, the sprung jaw of Nick’s truck and the filmed eyes of the dead headlights trained on them, seeing nothing. To the side, O’Bannon’s rusted clunker, sunk low into the gravel like an aged animal slunk in at last to its final resting place. Beyond, the desolate forest and its watchful dewdrop leaves. A wing from nowhere strummed the branches and rocked the hinges of the open truck hood, teased Elizabeth’s hair and then passed on, wending its way inevitably back to the sea. Nick played his flashlight over the scene one more time.
“Well,” said Elizabeth.
“Well,” he said. “I can try it one more time. If it starts, we’ll get out into the open on Russell Road and see how far we can get before it blows up. The hell with it. It beats sitting here.”
“Like sitting ducks,” she said resignedly.
“Go ahead and get in. We should be able to roll down to the fork from here.”
“Too bad that old car’s not running. How long do you think it’s been here, Nick?”
“Not as long as you’d think, probably. Everything turns to rust around here. It’s the salt in the air.” He swept his light over the occluded windshield, the hideously corroded body. She wants to draw a picture of it, he thought.
There was a full season’s worth of leaves mulched around it on the gravel. It was a wonder that it hadn’t been leeched for parts. As if anyone would come around except the guys who work—worked—here. As if anyone would bother to strip a Vega in the first place. The car had been rained on, birdbombed, baked, and frozen. You’d have to pay the wrecking yard to come out here and get it for junk.
“I don’t believe it,” he said then.
“I don’t either. To think that a week ago I was in—”
“The leaves,” he said.
“I do not believe it.” I am, he thought, the prize sap of the year. I’ve made mistakes before, but this one will go down in the Guinness book of imbecile history. “Kick me in the ass, will you?” he said. “Hard.”
“Why? Nick, it’s not your fault.”
“Take a look at those leaves,” he said. “Here, take the light.”
He stormed over to the car, Elizabeth following. “The leaves,” he said, “are all over the ground. But there are no leaves
the car, are there? Jesus, how could I
“You mean this car isn’t . . . ?”
“This car belonged to whoever came in to work here tonight. He
it in, for Christ sake! He had to.”
“I’ll look for the keys,” she said excitedly.
“Don’t bother. He took them with him, wherever in hell he is now.” Nick released the hood and fished in his pocket for his knife. “Give me some light.”
“But how . . . ?”
“Like this.” He was on the verge of exploding at her. “Kid, you never should have got in the truck with me last night.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
He sorted the cracked rubber cables and located a hot wire. “Get me a screwdriver from the truck. Should be one under the seat.”
“What are you doing?”
He stripped the end of the wire and ran it to the left side of the coil, then felt for the screws on the solenoid.
“Nick, I can’t find it!”
“Come here,” he yelled. “Give me the light.”
He opened his knife to the longest blade, held it by the staghorn handle and touched it to the two screws. A shower of sparks flew up. He positioned the flashlight on the fender and tried again. A deep half-moon bite had been burned out of the carbon steel of the knife blade. As long as there’s enough metal left to make a connection, he thought. He touched them again.
The starter engaged.
“Give me some gas!” he shouted. Before she could get across the seat, he reached for the throttle linkage. Gasoline poured down his sleeve.
The engine caught this time in an eruption of smoke.
He pushed her aside, jumped onto the splitting seat, and dropped in reverse. He activated the windshield wiper to clean the glass, but that only made it worse.
“Do you want me to get out and wipe it? I’ve got a tissue.”
“Hold on tight,” he said. “The best thing you can do now is watch out for the fog. It could be anywhere. If you see it before I do, I want you to scream bloody murder. Do you understand?”
Stevie was exhausted. Water blisters the size of quarters were sprouting on her hands. She gave up on the rip cord and let the rope slither back into the starter mechanism.
She forced back the bolt and drew open the door.
A few fugitive wisps of mist entered at her feet, but the air here was relatively clear. She inhaled deeply.
The ocean slammed against the shore. A solitary cricket stroked its song from under the sounding board of the walkway.
I should go home, she thought.
But Andy has Mrs. Kobritz. She’ll take care of him. I hope she knows where the candles are stored. In the cupboard over the refrigerator, behind the wine glasses. She’ll find them. And Andy is already asleep. With any luck he’ll stay asleep through it all.
A whispering woosh made her turn around and look up.
No. Oh no.
At the top of the flight of outside stairs, coagulating over the vinyl top of her car, was a wide, solid shelf of fog. It hovered at the roadside, crowding the chain-link gate, as if trying to decide where to go next.
Instinctively she ducked. Her fingers sank through the top layer of sand, which was still warm. She felt something soft beneath her fingernails. She withdrew her fingers, and lost her balance.
She hid in the shadow of the doorway, duck-walking backward till she could close the door. The soft thing clung to her fingers. She shook it off and saw it flutter to the floor, a downy gray seagull feather settling into darkness. She threw the bolt and put her back to the door.
It’s here. It’s gotten this far.
That means . . .
She pulled herself back up the spiral staircase to the studio.
First there had been the familiar boundaries of streets and lights, as always. Then there was the darkness leap-frogging across the basin, leaving the Bay a primitive scape of rocks and hills and trees such as must have greeted the first settlers generations ago. Now as she watched a new feature was added, a primordial icing such as must have covered the earth at the moment of creation, a gaseous chemical soup out of which arose the first malformed archetypes to walk the prehistoric continent. And now that icing of fog was multiplying, covering the flat roofs of every house along the beach, mile by mile and block by block, all-consuming, expanding like a gloved hand around the city.
She ran back down the stairwell, her steps ringing.
I’ve got to get back on! I’ve got to warn them. I’ve got to warm
And then from the desperate recesses of her memory she pictured the choke and the primer as it had been shown to her and took up the cord and grappled again and again with the generator, possessed, the sand on her skin breaking open her blisters, making them bleed, and did not let herself stop until it was running, yes, actually running somehow, spinning out its few pathetic watts into the rapidly closing night.
As the last of the candlelight procession wound through the park, a gray bulk took shape and plodded heavily toward Kathy Williams. Involuntarily she touched Sandy’s arm.
“Oh, Sheriff! We’re almost finished. Have you heard anything?”
“Eddie’s got a portable radio in the tavern,” said Simms, “and we’ve been listening to Stevie Wayne for the last twenty minutes. There’s some kind of trouble down at the beach. I think it’s best if we call it a night here.”
Kathy returned her attention to the candles. A fiery dollop of molten wax fell to the grass near her and congealed on the lawn. “Another few minutes and everyone will have seen the statue,” she said stubbornly. “That’s all I ask.”
The sheriff sighed. “All right, all right. Let’s get ’em through as quick as we can, though, and that’s it.”
He left her and blended into the line, prodding shoulders impatiently.
“It might be a good idea for you to go on home, Kathy,” said the mayor. “We can take care of things here.”
Kathy considered. It was her project, a memorial to the dead lost at sea on that terrible night a hundred years ago. A night perhaps not unlike this one. She began to weep silently.
“I should see it through to the end,” she said, biting her lips. “I owe them that much.”
Sandy took her arm and leaned close, her hair a nimbus. “Mrs. Williams,” she said gently, “there’s nothing more to do here. Right now I think you need some rest.”
“It pains me to admit it, Sandy,” she said softly. “But I think I would like that. It may be a long night.” She searched Sandy’s close-set eyes through the mist. They were open and sincere; for once no sarcasm appeared to be lurking there. She’s a nice girl, thought Kathy. I should have known it all along. Perhaps I did, perhaps I did, and that surprised her most of all. “Without electricity and all, I mean.”
“I know what you mean, Mrs. Williams.”
“Yes, Mrs. Williams?”
“Nothing. I suppose you have a date tonight. A pretty young woman like you.”
Sandy laughed through her nose in that way of hers. For once it was not annoying. “That’s not even a very good joke. There’s no place to go tonight. What would I do? Sit in the empty drive-in and watch mold grow on the screen? Or find myself a nice, dark bar and order flaming drinks so someone could notice me? You’re a nice woman, Mrs. Williams. For your information, I’m not doing a damned thing tonight.”
“Would you—could you stay with me, then, Sandy, this once?”
Above them, the sky was now completely obliterated. The fog continued to condense, releasing a light drizzle onto their faces.
Sandy smiled indulgently. “Yes, ma’am,” she said. “I think I’d like that.”
Ten minutes later they were driving away from the square, safe inside the Seville.
“Roll up your window, will you, dear?” said Kathy. “That fog is bad enough on the outside. I can imagine what it’s doing to the finish. Al will be furious.”
A lump lodged in her throat, but she kept her eyes clear on the road. She put on her brights, but if anything the high beams only made it harder to see ahead. The fog was everywhere.
“Shall I try the radio, Mrs. Williams?”
“Yes, Sandy, why don’t you? Some nice classical music might do wonders for me right now,” she said without conviction.
“. . . The fog,” said the voice of Stevie Wayne, “is moving along the beach. A part of it has already reached the center of town . . .”
“I’ll change the station,” said Sandy.
“No, leave it, please. I want to hear.”
“Anything you say.”
“. . . It’s hit the inner sections of the city. Broad Street . . . Clay Street. Now over to State Street . . .” The modulated voice broke. “Oh, Andy! Andy, get out! Run! Please, someone, my son is trapped on White Beach Lane! Help him, please! Please . . . !”