I woke with the dawn that morning. The sunlight fell in through the window and it was moments before I realized where I was. The bed was as hard as frozen hay beneath me. No wonder the old man limped. I moved to the kitchen, and the wood nipped at my toes. I was alone, just as the old man had promised.
“Are you certain?” He’d asked me. We had sat at the foot of the lighthouse, the waves crashing into the rock face sixty feet below. His eyes were the grays and greens of storm. They darted from the sea to his gnarled hands, twisted with age and exhaustion. His cheeks were wrinkled and leathered by decades of facing the winds.
“You’ll be quite undisturbed here. It’s just you and that light, guiding the men home safely. It’s a lonely life, but you’ll save thousands.” The old man looked out to the ocean. The breeze blew his white hair in wisps. I suspected he’d forgotten how to look a man in the eye.
“So, boy,” He held the keys out to me, already knowing my answer. It wasn’t the sort of job you need interview for. Tending a lighthouse was something only the loneliest souls were tasked with. “Are you certain this is the life you want?”
I was certain. I had nothing left in Kent. I nodded and watched him hobble off down the abandoned lane. He left me his life and took nothing with him.
The gulls squawked as they flew from the sea. I sipped at my tea. I knew then that I’d never be rid of that cold. No matter what cloak I donned or how many fires I burned, it would cling to my bones, turning them brittle and bleached like driftwood. The wind whipped off the sea as I made the first of many treks to the tower. There’d be a storm on my first night.
The tower was sparse. Iron stairs spiraled up the walls. It was hard to imagine the old man climbing these each morning. When I reached the top, I wiped clean the glass panels. I polished the lens. I trimmed the wick and filled the basin with oil. I waited for the sun to set into the sea as the old man had instructed me.
I sat admiring the scenery from my new glass cage when I spied a figure moving down the path. A woman slowly made her way through the grass below me. She passed my tiny shack and when she reached the edge of the cliff, she smiled widely. She stood still and looked out over the sea. Her blue dress billowed behind her. My hands were pressed to the glass, smudging the work I had done in order to watch her.
Didn’t she know a storm was rolling in off the sea? Didn’t she see the sun slinking behind the thick grey overcast? Her smile remained as she closed her eyes and pulled the ribbon from her hair. Her dark tresses cascaded down and were quickly lashed about by the bluster. Perhaps, she too, had nothing left from where she came. If I had been another man I might have spiraled down and out of the lighthouse. I might have run across the grass to her. I might have given her my name, told her she was beautiful. We might have walked away together. Away from Kent, away from the lighthouse, away from the sea.
It was impossible though. I’d promised the old man. I’d given up fantasies years ago. I watched her smile, her eyes close. And then I watched her throw herself into the sea.
That first night in the lighthouse marked the worst storm of the year. Every soul that came to the harbor made it safely home beneath the light. All but one.