Authors: Dennis Etchison
It was her favorite time of year, the season when seeds scattered on the winds, breathing life once more into the rainswept northern California coast. She had another hour left till broadcast time, and it was well worth it to her to take the long way around to Spivey Point. The air made her feel alert in a way no dirty Chicago winds had ever done. Which was one of the main reasons, she realized again, that she had chosen to stay here, for better or worse. Never to go back, she thought. Let the dead bury the dead and remain there with them in that dying, polluted necropolis.
She poked in the glove compartment for her sunglasses. Her fingers clattered the ad cassettes she had hidden there. She found the glasses, put them on, lit a cigarette with the dashboard lighter, and gave in. Face it, she told herself; money is money. Gee, that’s profound. How come I never thought of it that way before?
She chucked the first reel into the tape recorder on the seat next to her and depressed the PLAY button. It’s depressing me, she thought, waiting for the leader to run out. But so what? That’s the price you’ll have to pay, Stevie, for a whole new life in the far, far West. Play or pay.
A chorus of small-mouthed blonds sang into the wind:
It’s one hun-dred years a-go to-day,
So please now don’t you go a-way
Un-til you take the time to say,
HAPPY BIRTHDAY FROM
“Oh, brother,” she said. With friends like that . . . Small mouths, bad taste.
I Have No Voice and I Must Sing.
Wasn’t that the name of a book Andy had been reading? It should be, she thought, it should be.
She considered playing the tape that had arrived in the mail today from Chicago, just to take the bad taste out of her ears, so to speak, but decided there would be plenty of time for legal talk once she got to the station.
The rest of the way was free and clear with no off-road vehicles in sight. In her rearview mirror she saw a silver Cadillac whiz by in the opposite direction on the main highway above. As she approached the Point, she passed a burned-out campfire site but no people, thank God, only the usual remains of pop-tops, empty cigarette packs, and crumbled potato chip bags mixed in with the ashes. A small animal, a badger or a weasel, dashed across the access road and froze at the sight of her orange VW bearing down, so that she had to take her foot off the accelerator and downshift after the curve. It came to life at the last second and dashed for safety in the shadows of the chick-weed, its eyes glazed saucers in the flat light. She arrived at the lighthouse with time to spare, started to roll up her window and secure the top, in case that unscheduled fog bank decided to pay a visit to the mainland, but decided to leave the car as it was. Unlikely, to say the least. And vandals? Who ever came this far out onto the Point? Besides, canvas and vinyl wouldn’t keep out anyone who was determined, especially if they had so much as a penknife with them.
She gathered up the tapes, stuffed them with the recorder into her tote bag, grabbed the keys and some extra cigarettes, and headed for work. She unlatched the gate and started downhill.
The lighthouse thrust into the sky before her, a whitewashed mushroom anchored on the rocks at the end of a long, graded walkway built over the boulders. A hundred-and-thirty-nine steps down, she knew; she had counted them often enough. An invisible salt spray had slicked the handrail; it dripped at each jointed segment with bright, sparkling droplets that drilled infinitesimal target craters into the sand below. She hooked her hair behind her ears and raised her face to the sinking sun.
She was halfway there when, suddenly, a drumming she could even feel sounded under the ramp. She nearly dropped her bag over the side.
The metal platform sent vibrations through her body and left her motionless. White gulls perched underneath her were startled into flight, wheeled upward, and circled, cawing. They flew low, eying her. She watched them glide gracefully and alight farther down on the rocks, above the skittering sandpipers.
She shook herself back to the here and now.
Twelve minutes to go.
No time to stand and dream. She unshouldered her bag, lifted out the portable tape player and inserted the cassette letter from her lawyer.
“Hi, Stevie, and greetings from Chicago! Katherine and the kids send their love to you and Andy. One of these days you’re going to have to get an answering service, so at least I can reach you without having to call on my dinner hour . . .”
She smiled at the friendly immediacy of his voice. It made her forget the odd tramping outside. She did not know her lawyer that well, really—they had met when she needed help with Marty’s will. He had remained solicitous and protective—and yet he spoke to her with an unforced intimacy that put her at ease and reassured her that she had a friend across the continent who was actively concerned with her welfare. It seemed appropriate that they communicate by tape and phone most of the time, with hardly a written word between them except for forms that required her signature. It felt right, she thought, unlocking the door to the lighthouse. Well, he should sound friendly, she thought; I pay him well enough, don’t I?
“Did KAB get the news that we had a big storm here last week? Here it is the middle of April and it’s snowing. Guess you didn’t make such a mistake, after all . . .”
She keyed the door shut behind her and stepped around the mop and pail and ladder to the spiral stairwell, smelling the same old odors of mold and rust mixed with the fresh paint. She gazed up at the beams of sunlight made visible in the dust she had disturbed by her entrance, knowing that nothing would be changed upstairs, either. And yet, childishly perhaps, she always hoped. A big present on my console, a box of chocolates tied with a pink ribbon. Or a new chair to save my poor back.
Dream on, kid.
“Well, here’s the next chapter. I heard from the FCC yesterday. They still haven’t decided whether or not to extend your broadcast hours. All I can tell you is this: we’re up against an established format here. You’ll just have to be patient until I can complete my discussions with their lawyers. They’re hesitant, but they’re willing to listen to reason . . .”
She cradled the recorder in her arms and climbed the stairs.
“So, now that it’s finally your station and everything seems to be going on its own steam, I can convince them that it isn’t as crazy as it first sounded. The response has been unbelievable when you consider the market . . .”
She left the recorder running and set it on the desk, unloaded some things from her bag and checked the clock. It was ten minutes to six.
“Of course you have to realize that the FCC isn’t all that interested in the numbers . . .”
Neither am I, she thought, if you want to know the truth.
As she dumped her bag on the shelf, it flopped open and it startled her to see that she had brought Andy’s piece of driftwood with her. Well, there’s no candy on my desk, but I’ve got something better. An honest-to-God present from my very own son, bless his pack-rat heart. These are my new call letters. Dane. Who knows? Maybe I even had some Danish blood in my veins somewhere along the line.
She went to the window as the lawyer droned on, fighting, she could hear, to remain as casual as possible. Maybe he does. Maybe I’m just projecting.
“The broadcast standards business is something we have to fight them on . . .”
Ah, he’s warming to that. Business plus a fight. Now you’re talking, right?
“I think if it keeps on like this, we’ll have to expand. It will become a necessity.
“You’re going to have to turn the tape over now, so we can go through this incorporation business. It’ll take some time.”
She stayed by the window, feeling the sun through the double glass, the red staring eye of a man ready to die. And it came to her then that there was something inexplicably sad even about it all; his voice running out against the end of the reel, the endless ebb of the surf below, the gulls flocking past her solitary crow’s nest, the first blue bands of evening coming out on the sand, bleeding with the scarlet of the sky into the base of the lonely lighthouse. She folded her arms and hugged her sides. Even now she was getting a chill. She saw the clock on the wall.
Yes, yes, I know.
Nine minutes to six.
Almost time to go on.
“Ready?” continued the voice after she had flipped the tape. “I know you can do at least ten things at once, so it shouldn’t be any problem . . .”
Stevie Wayne, trained juggler, at your service.
“All right, first the accounting. Try to maintain rights as Station Manager, Business Affairs Manager, and just basically Owner and Operator. Edwards would completely fund you, but would want some sort of accounting privileges. Now, the corporation . . .”
Her eye was attracted back to the driftwood on the shelf. It really was beautiful in its way, a classic, a survivor of rough weather and stormy seas. Maybe it was an appropriate gift, after all. Thank you, Andy. I’ll have it mounted. If you let me keep it.
From somewhere behind her a shadow fell over the wood, flickering like a dark flame.
She jerked around to the window.
Outside, a blanket spread over the guardrail snapped in the breeze. It was the blanket she kept around her on cold nights in the studio, when the electric heater was not enough.
Only a blanket, she thought. What did you think it was? Why was she so edgy?
Eight minutes to six.
“Pay yourself a salary, use the funds for improvements, bills and operating costs—anything you need for the station. You should also hire someone to help sell air time . . .”
She sorted her papers and lined up the first hour’s requests.
“Stevie, I know you’ll object to this idea, but remember, we’re a small station and we need the accounts as well as the support of the local merchants. Edwards Corporation insists that you sell ten minutes of air time per day to help offset your operating costs. I know you really want a commercial-free station, and the move to Antonio Bay was to get away from silly jingles and the narrow-minded formats here . . .”
Stevie became aware of a new sound behind her as she worked, a regular sound that could have been a dripping. It caught her attention for a moment, but not being able to locate its source, she decided to ignore it. It was probably a mechanical flaw in the tape, one of those cheap Mexican cassettes that were good for about one play. Besides, it wasn’t even raining.
“But I think ten minutes is a fair compromise. And it most likely will ensure your FCC license. I think it looks like a good idea, if we can retain control. I bumped into Yaeger yesterday and he told me it was all but a certainty . . .”
She continued checking to be sure all was in order for the show.
Seven minutes to six.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
“. . . A certainty, I told him, a constant, like a stone in the wind . . .”
She heard a sputtering on the tape. Static.
Then, along with the dripping—
She would have sworn it was the sound of ship’s bells.
“. . . Something that one lives with, like an albatross around the neck . . . No, more like a millstone,
a plumb stone, by God . . .
For an instant she froze.
The voice on the tape.
It was not any voice she knew.
She whirled around.
And saw the driftwood bleeding.
“Damn them all!”
roared the voice.
“They plunder us for our Godless state!”
Stevie could feel her clammy skin tingle against the unnatural air.
She watched a stream of brackish water ooze out of the pores of the wood, darkening the aged grain, welling in the branded letters that had once been part of a proud christening, flowing in rivulets from the shelf, and puddling around the tape recorder.
“Curse you, Norrys! Can you not hold her steady? See there . . . !”
The brine puckered the leather cassette case, seeping into the batteries, slowing the drive mechanism to a crawl, a basso slur that was almost unintelligible. But it did not stop. She felt her face and neck grow cold.
“. . . There, through the whiteness! It’s a trick! I tell you it is the fire!”
In an instant Stevie knew herself to be trapped. The lighthouse began to quake. She was conscious of the glass windows bending dangerously under pressure. Her feet would not move. Crazily, the voice became a rumbling in the foundations, in the rocks, as a sound of thunder grew to a bellow within the closed studio.
A blinding flash of lightning materialized out of the charged air and scalded the wood, setting it ablaze.
And the voice went on.
“. . .
What say? I can’t hear! God, the thundering! The rocks, Norrys! The rocks! To port! To port . . . !”
She was jolted to one side and jerked the extinguisher from the wall and aimed it at the conflagration. She jammed the handle and CO
howled out of the nozzle, smothering the flames in a blur of whiteness. She held on until she was sure it was empty.
The fire was gone.
The wood remained, soaking in boiling salt water. But the wood . . . the flames had changed it, altering the letters so that a new legend was now charred in the wood. She gaped at it, fighting to understand.
6 MUST DIE
And then, as she watched the still-smoking wood, the last of the water steamed away and disappeared, leaving the original lettering as it had been, black and undamaged, part of the name of a long-lost clipper ship:
“. . . So here’s hoping all goes well,” droned the voice of the lawyer, as the tape recorder ceased sputtering and returned to normal playing speed. “If you have a chance to call me before the first, do it. Otherwise, I should have more for you next week.
“Take care, Stevie . . .”
In Stevie Wayne’s lighthouse, high atop Spivey Point in Antonio Bay, it was exactly six minutes before the hour of six, on the twenty-first day of April.
Someone was calling Andy, but he was miles away, floating on a cloud over the blue Pacific, and could not answer.