03 Jan The Gooseneck Chronicle
“The Gooseneck Chronicle”Written by Nick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 33 minutes
I had never seen this particular island before. As far as I knew it hadn’t even been inked on any map. I hadn’t been gone too long, nor had I ventured too far; the mainland was still visible in the west. Even a half-blind invalid who had never set foot in the sea could have found his way back. So what was this place and why did it have the feeling I was the first one to probe its shores?
It was less an “island” and more a severe outcropping of black rock that jutted from the ocean, the only sign of vegetation a few patches of hardy yellow grass. The shoreline was covered with tide pools, each brimming with oysters and black urchins; I had donned my trusty boots but I still took care to watch my step. Even without such hazards, the stony surface was slippery and jagged by itself. One slip would crack my skull or shear off a strip of flesh. I could think of no worse place to spend my last moments bleeding and broken with agony.
As I worked my way up the slope away from the watery precipice, seafoam and cold mist slapped at me as if trying to force me away from the island. I pushed past the elements and continued forward. I was a lobster fisherman after all…dealing with “inclement weather” came about as naturally to me as breathing. I remember those harrowing first few days out at sea, pitching and yawing on the steely waves as we hauled in our traps. And as if treacherous conditions weren’t enough, the cantankerous little buggers in the traps scuttled and squirmed and snapped with claws strong enough to sever a hand. Bottom line is, if a greenie weren’t scared off after their first week, they quickly became hardened briny sea dogs. The way I see it, seawater refines you with more veracity than fire could ever hope to compare.
The ground below me leveled out and I found myself on the island’s highest and flattest point. From this perspective I could see the opposite shoreline, not even a kilometer away. The landscape practically screamed at me desolation, with the exception of one lone, large patch of ground. This patch appeared to be upholstered with gray, uneven sand, peppered with charred debris, smoothed over and broken down by rainfall. I knew a building of some sort had to have been here in the distant past…but what? A homestead? A fish processing plant? The stubborn ground yielded no more clues for me. Uncovering the mysteries of this island would merit more than just a surface-deep investigation.
As I trudged past the patch, something glaringly organic on a wasteland of rock caught my eye. Near the far shore, tied around a narrow boulder was a rope trailing out of sight and into the sea. I picked my way towards it and stared down a sheer cliff, where the rope penetrated inertly into the depths. I could tell something was attached to it, weighing down its far end underwater. I had already guessed what it could be.
Peering over my shoulder, confirming I was indeed alone on this island, I hoisted up the rope and reeled in the lobster trap up the cliffside.
The trap was laden with rocks, a common tactic I’d seen to keep them stationary in the water, safe from the conniving pull of undersea currents. But upon peering through the mesh paneling I saw to my dismay and confusion it was otherwise empty. Such deserted islands, while devoid of life on land, were veritable honeypots for lobsters who frequented the various submerged caves and crannies. I was about to toss it back into the sea, hopeful that whoever came across it next would be more fortunate, when something caught my eye.
There was a glimpse of white within the rocks. I knew immediately it wasn’t a lobster, whose shells typically exuded a moody red hue. But my curiosity got the better of me, and I set the trap down and snaked my hand through the hole in the mesh.
What I pulled out resembled an ivory barnacle the size of my palm, the mouth in the center of its body closed off and motionless. Being a man of the sea these were very familiar to me, often encrusting the hulls of ships and the cheeks of baleen whales. I rolled it in my hand, fulminating on how strange it was that a fully-grown barnacle was found free-floating, unattached to any sort of hard surface.
That’s when a horrible burning pain shot through my palm.
I yelped and tried dropping the barnacle but to my shock and disgust it was stuck to my hand. The burning coupled with a horrible sucking sensation that sent shivers of nausea through my body. I could feel the skin on my palm fold and give way from its diabolical suction. I dropped to my knees and smashed the shell against the rocky ground but each impact only further cemented its hold in my flesh. I took to hooking my fingers around its edges and pulling…the sight of my skin rising with the shell nearly made me vomit once more…
Its mouth opened and a cluster of feathery tentacles spilled out over my fingers. I stumbled back in disarray and stared in horror at the writhing feelers that seemed to taste the open air. I turned around to flee for my boat, tied off somewhere along the opposite shore.
I froze. The voice, small and irritated, had come from somewhere at waist level. It dawned on me and I raised my shaking hand up to my face. The barnacle’s feelers had retracted back into its body, but its bony mouth remained open, glistening with foam.
“I was entrenched to a terrible fate,” it said. “But you alone boasted the compassion to save me. For that I am forever in your debt.”
The pain in my palm had stopped, but the sickening swoop in my stomach had compounded. My next words were slow to come. “Who…what are you?…”
“Lo…I am called Gooseneck,” the barnacle proclaimed. “You may think of me as your muse…now that we are one.”
“‘One?’ What do you intend for me, you foul creature?”
“I intend nothing. You have already fulfilled your purpose, sailor,” Gooseneck replied in his flat tone. “You freed me from that undignified prison. Now it is my time to return the favor.”
My eyes narrowed. I knew a deal with the Devil when I heard one. “You won’t take advantage of me, creature. I fear God more than I fear you.”
“You take me for something I’m not, sailor,” said Gooseneck. “I have known this world longer than your God has. I have seen countless worlds come and pass long before your God was a mere twinkle in the heavens. I hold power that puts Good and Evil to shame…the unfiltered force of the cosmos.”
“I…I don’t understand,” I said.
“Sailor, in my infinite gratitude I will grant you one wish,” said Gooseneck. “No tricks, no stipulations. My honor knows no bounds. Whatever you want, no strings attached. It’s the least I can do for your service.”
“How can I trust you?” I spat. “As far as I can gather you latched onto my palm and refuse to let go!”
“I understand your reluctance,” Gooseneck admitted. “So sure, you can return to where you came from and try to dislodge me in vain, and be forever shunned by those you call friends, cast away as a tainted, twisted freak…or you can humor me for just a few minutes more, until you make your one wish. In the meantime, don’t you want to know more about this island?”
My burdened hand curled into a half fist, but I considered his options for a long moment. I was still curious about the island, and no one as far as I could recollect knew I was even gone. There was no immediate issue with sticking around with my strange new acquaintance, troubling as the circumstances may have been. And if what he claimed was true, that he was an omniscient being that transcended God…
I resumed walking. “Alright then. What can you tell me about this place?”
“Great tragedy befell this rock many years ago,” said Gooseneck, as I treaded up the island’s length. “These watery nooks crawl with agony and death. You may have passed by a patch of refined ground before you found me…there was indeed a building there. A lighthouse, to be specific. It was the nest that reared all this island’s demons.”
The mid-Atlantic mist felt much colder now, frigid with the weight of souls. “What exactly happened here, then?” I asked.
“I believe the answer is right over this ridge,” said Gooseneck.
I reached the top of a stony uprising and a ghastly sight laid out below me. The ground sloped gently before dropping off into the sea. Driftwood tombstones had been stuck into the ground, weathered beyond recognition, some adorned with the wilted remnants of flowers. Crying seagulls circled the site, as if expecting more dead meat to show up. I counted at least a dozen dilapidated markers. Whoever had put together this graveyard had been in a hurry…or was repulsed by what had happened here.
But most upsetting of all was that one of the tombstones had a visitor. She was sprawled across the rocky ground, grasping a headstone with white knuckles, her entire body trembling with sobs. I stopped, at first fearful it may have been a ghost. But the seagulls lingered around her as if hoping she’d become another strewn carcass, and her brilliant red hair was like a blazing hearth in the dead of night. She was real. She was beautiful.
I approached, albeit warily. I didn’t need Gooseneck’s omniscience to determine she had suffered from the tragedy that had befallen this island.
I didn’t even know her but my heart ached with hers. Her torment was infectious in its magnitude. I wanted her to stop suffering. And, as my stomach gave a weak lurch, I wanted her to never suffer again. I wanted to be with her.
“Her name is Carina,” Gooseneck muttered. “Her father was the keeper of this very lighthouse.”
“Is it his grave she’s mourning?” I inquired. Gooseneck gave no answer, but I continued my approach. My boots slid and crunched along the rock, yet she appeared to have not heard me. “How did she even get here?” I peered around the edges of the island but didn’t see a vessel anywhere nearby.
I stared at her again. She was beyond despondent; I felt as though she would never get up and leave from that spot. “Gooseneck,” I said. “I know my wish.”
“Say it to me,” Gooseneck commanded.
“I wish,” I declared, choosing my words carefully, “I could spend the rest of my life with his woman. Carina. I want to take her as my own, and end her suffering.”
“So be it.” A vibrating sensation flared on my palm; I looked down to see the barnacle sinking into my flesh and the skin closing around it. Within a few seconds it was as if Gooseneck were never there.
I looked over to Carina, who had risen to her knees, wiping her face. She stood, looking around, her eyes squinted against the overcast light. Even with her tearstained rosy cheeks she was more beautiful than I could have imagined. “Who…who are you?” she asked.
“My name is Jack…Jack McCarthy,” I replied. “I came across this island on a venture.”
She nodded. “Good…I seem to lack the means to leave myself. If you’d allow it, I’d like to come with you back to shore.”
I hesitated at her willingness, but then I remembered my wish with Gooseneck. “I would love for you to come with me back to shore,” I said with a smile.
She drew up to my side and we locked arms, turning our backs on the graveyard and hiking down the island. The day had taken many strange turns indeed, but as I lowered Carina down into my boat and pushed off for the mainland, I looked to the horizon with heightening pleasure. I had almost forgotten about the talking barnacle in my hand.
That evening, with Carina at my side, I hosted a lavish celebration at the seaside pub. Drinks were on me and our fellow patrons indulged in my generosity. By midnight my pockets were light and my head was heavy, but I hadn’t a care in the world. Carina, the mysterious beauty from the island, had become smitten with me, and I returned those feelings with tenacity as we broke away from the party and wound up in the pub’s upper room. The candlelight threw her body into lustrous relief, and I lost my mind further in her sweet endowments. Her and I slept like the dead that night…two souls drifting off in a gentle current of dreams.
* * * * * *
The next morning hit me like an anchor to the head.
“Wake up, Jack. Wake up! Don’t die on me now!” Her voice was sharp and her shaking only rattled my bruised brain further. I blinked, my vision slowly screwing back in place. The headache deepened with each passing second.
“Jack McCarthy,” Carina hissed. “You’re going to be late. The ferry leaves in fifteen minutes!”
“Wha…” I sat up, my neck and limbs tangled in a cheap bedsheet. The sleep hadn’t completely left my eyes, yet I could tell it was early morning and Carina was riled up in a mood. “Late for what?” I croaked.
Carina rolled her eyes. “You really don’t remember? You signed up to be a wickie! Last night, downstairs? They were recruiting men with experience out at sea! You told them you ‘fit the bill!’”
“No, I really don’t remember,” I replied. “I must have been really drunk to have signed on to be a wickie…” For some reason I was not as reluctant to head out as I should have been. Lighthouse keeping seemed familiar to me somehow…but I could not express this feeling as words that made sense. I rolled out of our meager cot. “Wait…this will conflict with my job…what day is it? I might have to go out on the boat today…where’s Captain Standish?”
Carina rolled her eyes. “Really, how much did you drink last night? You’ve been out of work for weeks, Jack. We need the money now! Henry won’t let us stay in this attic forever!”
“We’ve only been here but a night!” I protested, my hangover pummeling me further with cloudiness. It didn’t add up. I clearly remembered returning after a day at sea on the boat with Captain Standish, reveling in our lobster-laden traps. Had weeks of my life really slipped away without my knowledge? I flexed my hand again, staring at the empty patch of skin where Gooseneck once was. Was this some unspoken consequence of his powers?
Carina grabbed my arm gingerly. “I will wait for your return…we can settle things then. But for now…go fulfil your promise, Jack…” A swell of voices roared up from the pub below. “Please, they’re about to cast off!” she pleaded, wringing my forearm.
“Fine, fine! I’ll go!” But my limbs were slow to react. My head pounded with protest. The morning light stung my eyes and the air felt like molasses as I drifted towards the rickety staircase. Just what on God’s green earth was going on?
I approached the rest of the men, a ragtag mishmash of bums and delinquents, garbed in shabby attire stained with booze, dust, and oil. I groaned in disgust, rueing the fact I would be stuck on some rock for weeks with them. Then I looked down at my own wrinkled clothes and caught a whiff of my own body odor. Maybe I wouldn’t stand out among them as much as I thought.
Henry the publican, heading the recruits, gestured to me as I joined in. “Aye, there be our late bird! Finally unstuckin’ himself from his girl so he could stick to some honest work!”
The men around me laughed. My face reddened with anger and humiliation. I wanted to shout that I had no idea what was going on, that I was in fact doing “honest work” with Captain Standish, that the day before I had made a covenant with a talking barnacle…but I knew they’d only laugh harder. It took every last speck of resolve to silence my tongue.
After Henry talked us through stipulations and protocol, we milled out into the foggy dawn. The low pressure only pained my head further. Whatever this was, I knew it wasn’t normal. It wasn’t right.
* * * * * *
The cattle boat tossed and bounced among the waves. The worst smells of the sea, of exhaust and oil and dead fish, were getting to me. It was the first time I had ever felt seasick. My grip on the port railings nearly warped the metal bars.
And that horrible fog persisted. It seemed to get inside my head and sink my mind into a haze of its own. I scarcely even heard the lighthouse’s booming horn echoing in the distance, like a leviathan’s roar.
The men around me seemed to have not a care in the world. They were young bucks, bursting with opportunity and crudeness. They laughed and swore and made jokes, running around the deck like a gaggle of schoolboys. The idea of them being stranded on a lighthouse in the middle of nowhere and imbibing a healthy dose of humility brought me some small amount of pleasure.
The island loomed in the distance, its shadowy lighthouse sticking up like some mountainous phallus. There was a painful lump in my throat as the passing clouds overhead gave it the scary impression of falling over.
“Into the boats!” Henry called out from the cabin. “Move yer asses! Let’s go!” Rowboats were lowered off the starboard side and the men flowed across the deck towards them, causing the boat to tilt with their weight. I reluctantly followed them in as the turbulent seas below us drew closer. As we cast off, my thoughts drifted back to Captain Standish and whether I was supposed to be on a boat with him today. Or maybe it was true and I hadn’t been on his crew in weeks…it was agonizing trying to recollect what wasn’t there.
“Gooseneck, what’s going on?” I hissed to my palm. “Answer me…”
“‘Ey lads, lookie here!” one of the young bucks shouted. “This here bloke talks to his left hand as well as jerks off with it!”
The lighthouse blared again as the other men laughed. I grumbled and forced myself not to look at them. It was the first hour of my first day at “work,” and already I wanted a drink.
The boats crunched onto a pebbly shoreline and we trudged up the middling slope. From this angle I could see the keeper’s quarters extending out near the base of the lighthouse. I hesitated for a brief moment. Henry hadn’t departed from the cattle boat, so who would be overseeing us?
The answer came limping out from behind an outcropping rock. He was shorter than the rest of us, yet the group still shuddered with a collective cringe. The old man was stooped and square-shaped, sporting a fiery red full beard and tied-back grungy hair. His face was blocky and scarred with mismatched eyes. His navy blue overcoat was speckled with ash that drifted down from a pipe stuck between his teeth.
“And who the Hell are you lot?” he growled, one eye squinting as he stared. When no one answered, his face pinched further and he turned his ear. “Forgive me, boys. I just assumed that anyone who set foot on my island answered to me when prompted. Now who the Hell are you lot!”
“We’re the wickies, sir,” a brave soul up front offered. “We’re supposed to train with you?”
The old man sucked in a gnarly puff of smoke. He plucked the pipe from his mouth, smacking his lips as if mulling the wickie’s words. “Aye…yes, it does ring a bell with me. Yes. The lot of you whelps are to stay on this island with me and learn in the glories of the light.” He turned his pipe over and dumped the molten dregs onto the ground. “Sounds like Hell enough for me.”
“What may we call you, sir?” the same brave soul asked.
The keeper spat on the ground. “Well, you got the ‘sir’ part down pat. What’s yours, maggot?”
“Well let me tell ya, Sean, I really don’t give a toss what yer name is. You call me ‘sir,’ and I call you ‘maggot,’ how’s about that?”
I scowled. My years in the Royal Navy had taught me the difference between seasoned veterans weary of life who had earned the right to be the boss, and salty, overworn bastards with too much sand up their asses. The thing standing before me was definitely the latter option. It was the perfect complement to this infuriating situation.
“You got anchors in yer pants?” the keeper scolded. “Up to the quarters and shed those rags ‘round your bodies! If you’re to work, you’re to be in uniform!”
The group scrambled up the shore towards the living quarters; I brought up the back, feeling heated and sickly despite the cold mist. As the fog billowed overhead, the horn blared again, rattling my skull. I’d endured combat, hurricanes, and scurvy in my past, but somehow I knew this would be the hardest thing I’d ever do.
* * * * * *
The first week of training was pure Hell. I had ten years of seniority on the second-oldest member of our group, yet I was subjected to the same menial, filthy work as the rest of the rats. On our first day we found the water tainted with algae, so our first duty was draining and scrubbing the cistern. The windows, walls, and floors had to be constantly wiped down from excess seawater. Kerosene and water had to be delivered from place to place. Fresh paint was to be applied to the lighthouse’s exterior during our stay. Seaweed and marine scum had to be scraped off the steps and boat landing. It was as if the sea wished to consume our miserable little island and we had to fight back against it day by day. None of us ever went up to the Fresnel lens however. We had to work our way up to that, apparently.
We suffered from the sea’s appetite too. The marine air left us in states of near-unbearable thirst. Our wool-and-cotton uniforms chafed against our skin when they got wet, which was every time we’d step outside. The seawater dried in caked-on briny mattes that encased us like mummies. The occasional rainstorm served to release us from our salty cocoons. Then the cycle would repeat.
Our sleeping situation was no less taxing. A dozen men stuffed in the living quarters’ foyer on stock makeshift cots was a trial I thought I’d never have to endure again. If one man had a troubled sleep, the rest of us would. Only that first night did we all get our requisite rest, on account of our utmost collective exhaustion. After that, however, our old habits and vices returned, and sleep became a chore instead of a relief.
And all the while we toiled under the watchful eye of the old keeper, who took to prowling the lighthouse’s balcony and shouting insults as we passed by. There was always something with him, it seemed. “Don’t take the same path twice with the wheelbarrow! Elsewise you’ll end up in a rut!” “Stop! Go back and grab yourself a tarp! A pox on ye if you forget a tarp once more!” “I can smell you from here! You reek like the back end of a sea cow!” The one positive aspect about his presence was his insistence on handling the night shift with the light. But our abysmal sleeping situation was not much of a respite.
Just as aggravating as his voice was the omnipresent blare of the foghorn, which cancelled out the sounds of the sea and human voices every time it went off. After five days my body simply went numb in response to that horrible bellow. My ears felt stuffed with dust and lint, unable to take in much else except the horn. That, plus the grating tones of the head keeper.
I had almost forgotten about Gooseneck. Any further attempts to contact him were met with silence. At that point I simply pushed aside the bizarre circumstances of our meeting and labored onward. Life felt normal…as if I had always intended to do this, as if I had always known Carina. The mere thought of her kept me going in spite of everything.
I must love her mightily, I realized on Day Eight as I scrubbed the base of the lighthouse. Mightily enough to weather this relentless absurdity. Still, the revelation that we had at least four weeks of training left before the cattle boat was due back did not sit well with me. The sun beat down on my neck and my lower back seized up as I scrubbed away at a stubborn stain. I thought I’d wear down the concrete and burrow a hole to the inside before I made any more progress. “To Hell with this,” I spat, throwing down the rag and standing up to stretch my back. I was parched, but not for water. I desired something a bit stiffer.
“You look like you could use a pick-me-up,” a sly voice muttered. At first I thought it was Gooseneck, finally breaking his absence – then I turned and noticed a scrawny, ratty man behind me. I recognized him among the rest of the wickies only from his propensity for silence. I knew not his age or even his name, but I somehow recognized he was closest to myself in age. If I were to have acquainted with any of my fellow wickies, it would have been him.
“My curiosity’s piqued,” I replied. “What did you sneak onto this rock?”
The man shook his head. “Didn’t get the chance for no sneakin’. But let me tell ya, fella…” He leaned forward and lowered his voice, although there was no one else in sight. “I been sleepin’ well at night while the lot of you toss and turn. I been goin’ about me chores pain-and-carefree during the day, while the lot of you gripe and groan about joints and sunburns and what have you. Want to know how I did it?”
“Like I said,” I responded, “I’m curious.”
The man threw a glance over his shoulder. Then he reached underneath his coat and pulled out a worn gunpowder flask. “Allays suspicion,” he claimed, before uncorking it and taking a swig. I stared in fascination at his gall. But what exactly was he imbibing? “I’m only doin’ this ‘cause I see the good in you,” he explained. “One man to another. Ya hear me?”
He then extended his arm and offered me the flask.
My eyes narrowed. “You haven’t told me what’s in there.”
The man shook his head. “It don’t have a name. But it’s all stuff I gleaned on this island, I’ll tell ya that. Nothin’ you haven’t drank before. Any idiot could make it if he got boilin’ water and one of them Mason jars.” He looked around again. “Make it fast, buddy, ‘cause I’m not too keen about havin’ this out in the open.”
I glanced up at the lighthouse. The old keeper appeared to be absent. Hesitantly, I took the flask from him and brought it to my lips. The liquid was heated from the sun, and it stung my tongue like acid and fire. The taste was angry and rebellious, some unspeakable cocktail of whale oil and grappa. “Mary Mother of God,” I wheezed, struggling to force it down. “That tastes like the Devil’s sweat.”
The man gave a cackle and nodded. “God’s wounds, that be a good name for it! Yeah, that one sip is probably enough for the day. Just let me know when you want another shot. I got ya. Look for Michael. That’s me. Mike the Mixer.”
I shook Mike’s hand and watched him saunter off, then swished my tongue inside my mouth and spat heavily onto the ground. I’d spent a night in a sperm whale carcass and binge-drank viper whiskey in the Pacific Islands, but nothing had come close to the vileness I had just tasted. And the way Mike had just swigged it like that…somehow I suspected the Mike I met was nothing like the Mike that actually existed…the Mike before he discovered that drink.
I turned back to the lighthouse and resumed scrubbing. But the more I wiped, the more the pains in my back and neck seemed to siphon away. Within five minutes the lighthouse base was a brilliant white again…almost glowing warmly. In fact, the colors all over the island seemed to have exploded with hue. I felt airy and light. “What was in that drink?” I joked to myself, nearly skipping across the rocks to my next task. The sounds of crashing waves and seabirds felt gloriously fuller. Even the sensation of mist on my face was exquisitely chilling, like an ice bath with each droplet. I became very aware…my environment, my heartbeat, the mounting giddiness. No more pain. No more gloomy prospects. I felt I could work all day, all year round…
“Oi, Mr. Sunshine!” a grating voice beckoned. “Get yer buns over here!”
I skidded to a stop and saw the old keeper waving at me from the open doorway. Despite the euphoria I felt a twinge of annoyance. But it wasn’t enough to deflate the balloon in my chest as I approached and entered the room with him.
“Sit,” he demanded, pointing his pipe at a cheap wooden table and chairs. When I sat down he lowered himself slowly and his knees gave twin revolting cracks. “Ooh, Jeezum Crow,” he gasped. I forced myself to give an unassuming smile, despite the dank, musty air and the smell of sour sweat coming off of him.
“I see ye prancin’ about like you ain’t got a care in the world out there, Mr. Sunshine,” the keeper explained, staring at me through one eye. “You work hard and I like that, but you’re still pissin’ me off. You may work but you ain’t a worker. Not yet.”
I stared back, not comprehending. The keeper set his folded hands on the tabletop. “Listen good, chappie. Under me, you’re the oldest man on this rock. I want you to do a solid for a geezer like meself and start taking some initiative over the rest of these whelps. I cannot be in two places at once – I need someone to act as me emissary. You gotta take initiative. You got that, sailor?”
I nodded in agreement, but a dark thought wormed its way into my mind. You’re giving me more work?…I’m not even supposed to be here! “What would that entail, sir?” my mouth said.
“Management, curfew, inventory, the like.” The keeper reached behind him and slammed a dusty textbook onto the table that nearly split it in two. “Page 306, Article Two, Section C. Get readin’. I expect ye to tend to these works by supper. Now good day.”
As the keeper hobbled out of the room down a hallway, I squinted with irritation at the minute text cramped on the pages. It was the man’s plan to keep me here…to bind me as his champion to this rock forever, to rise up as a wickie and eventually take his place as a disfigured homunculus lording over a lighthouse…all because of some promise to Carina I couldn’t even remember making…
I blinked, and the room appeared suddenly dimmer. There were marks in my palms from where my clenched fingertips had pressed into. Whatever giddiness I’d felt before had been replaced with crawling anxiety. And I thirsted again for Mike the Mixer’s mystery drink.
What the Hell did he give me? Despite how it got me through those several moments I resolved not to approach Mike the Mixer again. And yet that night I slept the worst I had on the island. The pain in my back twisted my spine into a knot. The sunburn on my neck was a cigar pressed on my skin. I couldn’t help but groan and writhe in my cot, my knuckles bleeding from biting down on them.
I’d take just a little per day. It would get me through. Not enough to drink like water, as Mike was keen to do. Whatever that hellish concoction was, I would not let it take me downriver.
* * * * * *
Another week passed. Day 15 on the rock. As those seven days passed I held fast to my pledge. I only took a dose of the Devil’s Sweat with my two daily meals, and with each dose the troubling side effects from that first taste seemed to lessen. The comedowns weren’t nearly as severe, and the various pains that flared back after the effects wore off were naught but dull reminders. My workdays were of blissful focus.
I was still aware, however…viciously aware. My hearing, once deafened by the foghorn, could now pick up conversations from behind closed doors and damn near a hundred yards across the island. The wind rustling in the grass. The wingbeats of seabirds. Streams of seawater running across rock. Even the sunlight seemed noisy, laced with the colors of a prism. There was no real solitude anymore. Something was always catching my attention. I could scarcely even hear myself think. Life kept butting in where my mental vacuum should have been.
As for my new duties, I took up roll call twice a day, oversaw the transportation of supplies across the rock, and manned the shores when new shipments came in. In some ways I relished the authority and relinquishment of menial labor. But I could tell the wickies were bitter, envious even. The old keeper still refused to let me up near the lens with him. And whenever I gave orders, I always caught Mike the Mixer’s knowing gaze. I may have commanded authority, but he had my balls in a noose.
“Don’t stop,” he said one evening before supper. Spirits were high among the men; they had just caught a handful of lobsters in the pot they’d set out, leaving them distracted enough. They hadn’t noticed us just inside the dining room. “You stop now,” Mike explained, “you go back to the miserable wreck you once were.”
“I won’t be here forever,” I responded, taking a swig. “How do I get off?”
“We worry ‘bout that when we get there,” said Mike. “You’re doin’ great, though. There’s a real spring in your step. And you’ve got the good graces of the head keeper.”
“Back on shore I was laughed at, like I was the town drunk,” I said. “I had a reputation and a life before that…but then, overnight, I became a walking trash heap. I don’t even remember signing on to be a wickie. Weeks of my life just gone and went…I…”
He was the first wickie I had confessed my predicament to. Gooseneck had never even crossed my mind. But I was grateful, and there was a tempered coolness about him I appreciated. “So, forgive me for being wary, Mike…I know what drink does to me, and I don’t want to blink away my life like that again.”
“That’s all mighty pretty of you,” said Mike. “But you’re the best of us, Jack. You can’t stop. Drink up.”
I grimaced and downed my evening shot. I had grown numb to the taste as well, but it sat inside me like something heavy and toxic before finally passing through. I still hadn’t determined what it was made of. The commotion came inside, and Mike and I broke up as the wickies brought in their catch, slapping the lobsters upon the dinner table and putting on a pot of water. “Make it speedy, men,” I commanded, watching them toil. “We gotta get the topsoil covered up before the storm sets in tonight.”
Thanks to the drink, their conversations sharpened and spiked through my ears. Focusing on nearly a dozen voices at once was exhilarating…almost overwhelming. I stepped into the storage closet to blot out their chatter and breathe easy.
The voices persisted, albeit with less vigor. I let out a sigh, feeling my aches and pains ebb away…until a few words nearly made me gasp.
“…red-haired girl at Henry’s.”
I nearly broke the door down, but somehow I managed to stop my angered fist. My brain was a beached fish flopping in my skull as their talk crawled its way in…
“What about her then?”
“She’s a right beaut, that’s for sure. But as long as she’s wastin’ away in the attic with him, I fear all those goods might go to waste.”
“Her tits are already saggin’. If you wanna make a move, you better do it fast.”
“I intend to. Only problem is that drink-soaked pissant she’s lettin’ inside her. I swear, that man is madder than a March hare. Don’t know what his deal is.”
“So how would you deal with him?”
“What if I put this in his supper and said it was table salt?”
They laughed boorishly.
I busted open the door and startled the wickies, who had just dropped a lobster in the pot. They gaped at me with wide, stupid eyes, eyes I had no qualms about ripping out and crushing between my fingertips.
“Which of you said that!” I spat. “Which of you sorry cum-guzzling cockroaches spoke such devilry about me and my girl!”
Even the sea outside seemed to have silenced. Only the foghorn dared to make itself heard. Their expressions practically dripped with guilt…and confusion.
“I bet you pathetic cow-hearts don’t even know her name,” I hissed, stalking among them, my face inches from theirs. “Keep your yeasty peckers to yourselves, how about that! Huh?!” The water in the pot was boiling over, sending foamy bubbles over the stovetop. The sizzle was like thousands of bugs in my head. I stomped over to it and grabbed the pot bare-handed and lifted it over my head. “Confess, you dogs! Which of you were speaking about us! Nobody eats until somebody talks!”
“It was I! Myself and Jacobs!” a terrified wickie piped up. His friend Jacobs looked at him as if he’d just ripped his balls off.
I slammed the pot down on the stovetop, spilling scalding water over my forearms. Ignoring my flaring skin, I bore down upon them. “You thought I couldn’t hear what horseshit you were spewing? You think I’m fucking stupid?! I’ve been busting my ass since Day One on this cursed endeavor, and you think you can just take away the one thing that’s gonna make it all worth it to me?! How dare you!”
The two wickies had shrunk under my furious gaze. I cared not for the tight, beet-red skin on my arms, or the pot of water which had boiled over again. I raised a shaking, blistered finger. “And then that horseshit about putting something in my food! It’s not enough to steal my life away, now you have to take it?! I’ll have you keelhauled, you delinquent fuck!”
“What are you talking about?” the wickie retorted, straightening up. “We never said anything about killing you!”
“You did! You said to put rat poison in my supper! I heard it!”
“I heard him too,” another wickie spoke out. “He didn’t say nothin’ about it.”
“He didn’t,” yet another concurred.
“They was just talkin’ about the girl.”
“Nothing ‘bout you,” Mike the Mixer chimed in from the back of the room. “They was only talkin’ ‘bout your girl.”
I seethed, the burns compounding with a vengeance. I didn’t trust any of those wickies as far as I could throw them…but Mike had turned against me too…either he was in on it after being so helpful the last few weeks, or I was truly going mad…
“Two-faced fucks,” I hissed, pushing past them and storming out the front door. “I hope you choke on that fucking lobster.” A gust of wind slammed the door shut behind me.
My mind felt corroded with ravenous salt…my pores itched with psychic worms. It was an overcast evening yet the last few remnants of sunbeams were blinding. I could still hear those bastards behind me, despite the closed door and twilight gale…I could hear everything, the clattering of cutlery, the squeak of wooden chairs, the pot boiling over still…
With a cry I slammed myself onto the rocks and broke down. My tears reeked of the Devil’s Sweat. I could taste blood in my mouth from busted gums. The concoction was driving me mad…but I couldn’t confess, otherwise I’d be arrested or thrown off the island…and my life with Carina would be shattered. A titter of laughter rang out from the dining room and I cried out again, staggering across the island to the living quarters, mercifully empty, where I collapsed in my cot, writhing and sobbing in a puddle of foul sweat.
* * * * * *
I hadn’t visited Mike the next morning, and already the pains were snarling back. My mouth was swollen from my fall the previous evening. All over I was burned, twisted, bruised, and wrung-out. And the sensory overload still persisted. Whatever the drink had done to me was permanent now. My tongue tasted of it. I tried keeping down a serving of hardtack for breakfast, but it turned to swill in my mouth and I had to spit it out. I cursed my thirst for drink…for anything that reminded me of the glow of alcohol. It was killing me slowly.
Mike seemed keen to avoid me too. He knew what his drink had done to me. Perhaps I was the exception…or the norm. That afternoon, as I joined the wickies in refurbishing the walkway to the living quarters, a new purpose suddenly became apparent to me. Once I was off the island and relieved of my training period, I would report Mike the Mixer…let my superiors know he had poisoned me and potentially poisoned others. Yes, I thought, as I swung away with my mallet. I missed the nail several times and struck my hand, but my digits had become blue and numb by that point. I only grinned broadly and kept at it, ignoring the workers’ paralyzed expressions.
Two more weeks, Jack…two more weeks, and you’ll be back with Carina, and Mike will be drawn and quartered by the blind hands of justice.
I heard a wickie scrambling across the island towards me. I turned and spotted him, a mere speck in the distance, yet his footsteps sounded as though they were right in my ears.
“Sir…” he panted, out of breath.
I could hear the disgusting sound of his wet throat opening and closing with each gasp. “Cut your petulant wheezing and tell me what it is you want.”
The wickie blanched and straightened up, his face straining with the effort to not breathe. “Head keeper wants to see you,” he blurted. “Said it’s urgent.”
“Oh it’s ‘urgent,’ is it. Does that old bitch need his feet drained or something?”
The wickie shook his head. “He wouldn’t say.”
“Get out of my way,” I spat, shoving past him. The wickie whimpered behind me and retreated to the sanctity of his friends. About time you start fearing me, I thought, trudging away and towards the keeper’s quarters.
I creaked the door open. Despite the lack of light everything was thrown into sharp relief to my addled eyes, including the head keeper, who was sitting at the same table and staring at me in a manner only sour old men could manage.
“Take a seat, Jacky boy,” he growled.
I sat down across from him, hating my new nickname with all my tired heart.
“You’ve been displeasin’ me, boy,” the keeper said.
“Oh?” I replied, trying to maintain a professional composure.
“Yer men have been talkin’ to me in private,” he muttered. “They say you’ve been quite the right bastard to them as of late. Difficult. Moody. Violent. What’s this ‘bout last night’s suppertime I heard?”
“Whatever they told you wasn’t the full picture,” I protested. “They spun a yarn and I severed it. That’s all you need to know.”
“Boy, I ‘need to know’ everythin’ that goes down on this godforsaken rock,” the keeper objected, pointing his pipe at me. He then unfolded a spreadsheet on his lap and placed it on the tabletop. “Includin’ why we need all this extra kerosene for next week’s shipment!”
“Sir?” I forced myself to focus on the spreadsheet, but the text swam off the page like migrating salmon. “Please explain,” I said.
The keeper scowled, unimpressed at my apparent dimness. “Two days ago you put in an order for three tankards of kerosene. We had enough kerosene in that shed to last us two weeks!”
“A lighthouse needs fuel,” I offered.
“Shove it, ye dog!” the keeper scolded. “Either those tankards sprouted legs and marched off on their own, or someone has been stealin’ it on yer watch! That be a basic tenet of yer duties, lad! The First Commandment of the Lighthouse, for God’s sake! Did you not peruse the manual like it be the Bible? Or are ye illiterate as well as stark-ravin’ mad!”
“I don’t understand though!” I said. “Who among us would be stealing our kerosene? What would they do with it?!” But the answer came to me well before I finished the sentence. Only one man on the island had a vested interest in acquiring exotic liquids.
“You be either stupid or lyin’,” the keeper sneered. “And I pray to God it ain’t the latter. If ye know anythin’ about where that kerosene might have gone, spill it. Right now.”
My jowls quivered. How I wanted to throw Mike the Mixer through the wringer…how I wanted him to suffer for what he’d done to me. But this was not the time or place. I kept my lips sealed.
“Stupid, then,” the old keeper scoffed, rising to his feet. “Well I’ll tell ya this, laddie. I’m demotin’ you. You’ll be workin’ out in the sun and sea just like the rest of them boys out there. And for that matter, you’ll be stayin’ on this rock with me for another four weeks so ye can learn the value of a job well done!”
“NO!” I screamed, throwing myself into the tabletop. “No please!! Anything but that! Double my workload! Hell, triple it! But I cannot survive another day on this rock! I need deliverance from these hellish workings! I need to see her again!! Please!!”
“Look at ye,” the old keeper chuckled, regarding me with a pitiless smile. “Floppin’ and grovelin’ like a gutted porpoise. You’re pathetic. Grow some hair on yer cock and come back to me once ye got yerself sorted out.”
“FUCK YOU!” I slammed my hand on the table, scraping the side and cutting my palm open. The pain was excruciating but I pointed at him with my bleeding hand. “You have no idea what’s going on with me!” The tears were back but I let them run free. “I’ve been poisoned! I’m impaired! I hear and see everything and don’t know up from down! I know exactly where the kerosene went! In here!” I wrung my hand, sending flecks of red everywhere. “It’s in my blood, old man! My blood! It’s bursting my veins because it can’t get out!!”
The old keeper’s jaw had dropped. Removing his pipe, he shook his head slowly, as if truly remorseful for my descent. “You’re mad. Madder than a rabid mule. Maybe the asylum is where I’ll have you sent next.”
“NOT A CHANCE IN HELL!” I charged at the old man who threw up his arms in defense – my hands grasped his and his pipe scorched my wounded palm. I jumped backward, immediately deflected by the pain…and then gaped with horror at what had happened.
Instead of dripping blood, my right hand was gushing a steady stream of liquid fire. It stank of rusted iron and burnt flesh…it was my blood. All that goddamn drink in my blood. The fire pooled at my feet and crackled as the wood charred beneath it.
The keeper was horrified too. He backed towards the door, his mouth babbling silently. The shock of seeing my own blood become fire slowly curdled into dark, delicious desire.
“Not a chance in Hell…for I am the Devil,” I hissed.
Then I flexed my arm and flung a streak of blood across the wall.
The keeper’s quarters immediately burst into flames. The old man escaped out the door, squawking and shrieking like a siren. Striding through the fire, I broke it down behind him and lurched outside, trailing fire behind me as black smoke swallowed the keeper’s quarters. He had disappeared, but I could see terrified wickies staring at me…stupid maggots who deserved no less gruesome fate…
“Have at you!” I snarled, flinging my blood in the face of the first wickie. His eyes and mouth immediately liquefied from the flames and he staggered aimlessly with a gargling scream before collapsing. The others broke apart and fled. I laughed, my throat burning up, the very moisture in my body ablaze. Embers spat from my mouth as I laughed.
I would run out of fuel. I needed more.
With scorching legs I made a fiery dash to the living quarters where I knew Mike the Mixer would be preparing for his own drink. The door turned to splinters under my fury and before the man could even look up from his cot I had wrapped my hands around his throat, searing his flesh, my ignited sweat dripping on his face like candlewax. His last choked words were meaningless to me. Even as his arms continued to twitch I found his gunpowder flask and greedily downed its contents. I let out an almighty belch and flaming bile dribbled down my front. I scarcely felt the pain. I was a walking torch…hellbent on consuming all in my wake.
Refueled, completely corrupted by fire, I stumbled out into the twilight and immediately fell upon the two hopeless fucks who tried subduing me. Their sorry husks erupted into flames as I bellowed with laughter, daring any other damned souls to touch me.
The lighthouse spoke out. From above, its foghorn dared to make itself heard again. That noise…that horrible noise which had been the source and trigger of all my torment…
“To the depths with you,” I hissed, continuing my manic, flaming lurch. I could feel my muscles unravelling under ashen skin. I had to be quick…I had to get to the top before my blaze of glory died…
The lighthouse’s door likewise crumbled before me. A wickie tying up a tankard of kerosene to the pulley yelped and dashed past me out of the building. I kicked the tankard over, letting the liquid smother the floor. Then, taking slow, deliberate steps, I ascended the lighthouse’s spiral staircase, dragging my charred fingertips along the side wall, leaving five burning grease trails behind. The climb was arduous; it would have been difficult even if I weren’t a half-dead fireball. I wondered off-handedly how the old keeper made the ascent every night.
The fire rose with me, devouring the base of the lighthouse as I made it to the top and climbed up the hatch. The Fresnel lens was still lit, like a massive solar diamond. The stairs below me were completely engulfed. And from the height, peering out the glass, I saw fiery snakes branching across the island, and bright little spots of burning men attempting to reach the ocean before the flames destroyed them. None were successful.
“You’ve killed us all,” a hoarse voice croaked. My charred corpse crunched as I turned to face him. Inexplicably, the old keeper had made it up before me. His scarred face was shiny with tears, reflecting the lens and my own fire. “Everything…you’ve…you’ve killed…everything.”
“No less than it deserved,” I wheezed, my tongue and throat barely enough to form words. “You and your ilk put me through Hell. Let it be known that I alone managed to burn Hell down..”
The keeper shook his head again, uncaring that the flames had reached his bootheels.
“How does it feel?” I rasped, my face breaking into a molten smile. “How does it feel that your last place of sanctuary, the thing you love most, has been pillaged and raped by myself? How does it feel that your legacy will come crashing down with me?”
“You fool,” the old keeper wept. “This place be but brick and oil. The thing I love most is far away from us, where ye will never touch her…”
“Pray tell then, who is it?” I laughed, my jaw threatening to detach from my skull. “I’ll pillage and rape whoever this harlot might be as well!”
The old keeper gently grasped the railing and held his head down, his eyes closed, as the flames caught up to his overcoat.
“…My daughter. …My lovely, beautiful, Carina.”
Amid the fire I felt a new pain…a pain I hadn’t known for weeks, months as far as I knew. A sucking sensation in my left palm. Like a barnacle latching on.
And before I could make the connection, the tankard below us exploded, and the lighthouse crumbled to the ground.
* * * * * *
I awoke to soft rainfall on my face.
I hadn’t known how long I’d been dead. But one look around told me it had been a very, very long time. All traces of life had been erased from the island. Where the lighthouse and quarters were, was nothing but a large patch of refined earth.
It was familiar. So godawfully familiar.
I drifted across the barren landscape, a miserable ghost, memories pouring into my incorporeal mind. This was the place…this was the place I had traversed…where I had first found Carina…where I had first found…
In a flash I lifted my hand to my face. With a strangled cry I saw the barnacle attached to my left palm. The treacherous imp just wouldn’t let me go.
“Gooseneck!” I demanded.
Gooseneck’s mouthparts opened up. “You called?”
“What sort of torture is this! Why did you subject me to such heinous designs!”
“You blithering idiot,” Gooseneck chided. “I did not subject you to this. You did. Many years ago, when you arrived on this island with a dozen men, as a drunken, unemployed vagrant just trying to make his woman happy. When you succumbed to your carnal desires and addicted yourself to another blithering idiot’s toxic concoctions. When you burned down this island in a rage, destroyed the lighthouse, and took your sweet Carina’s father with it.
“This whole endeavor was of your heinous design, make no mistake about that. God merely passed judgment.”
“No…” I cried. I floated down the island, my being of pure, heartbroken anguish. “No…no…NO!” I ended up in the graveyard, hastily thrown together, a cheap memorial to the horror that had transpired because of me.
I saw my tombstone, a plank of driftwood sticking from the ground. My own name scrawled onto it. And standing in front of it, overcome with tears, her hair like rubies in the low light…Carina. In her hands she clutched two fist-sized rocks.
“This is for my father,” she sobbed, throwing one rock. It connected with my name, scratching off half the text. “And this is for everyone else on this island!” She hurled the last rock, which chipped off the top corner. “You bastard! Evil, despicable bastard! How could you!! How could you!!” And she broke down, falling forward and grabbing my marker, weeping openly, her body trembling. Crying seagulls gathered above.
“No,” I muttered, fleeing back up the rock. “No…please stop this, please, I can’t, I cannot bear this anymore…I renounce my sins, I am a festering wretch, I am a walking scourge, I…”
“It is too late for that,” said Gooseneck. “You are precisely where you deserve to be.”
“NO!” With inhuman strength I ripped the talking barnacle off my left palm. Gooseneck’s underside was a fleshy, pulsating slit that let out a hollow rasp at being detached. “Away with you!” I flung the barnacle across the rocks, where it clattered and bounced, still completely intact. I drifted over to him and stomped on his shell. “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” With each curse I kicked him further down the island towards the sea. Something stood out against the rocks at the edge of a cliff. A lobster trap…the only thing to have survived the fire. I grabbed Gooseneck and stuffed him in the trap, hurling it down the cliffside, where it sank with a splash. “Drown in the abyss, you devil!” I cried down at the ocean, my throat nearly torn across from the strain. Only then did I realize the terrible irony of what I’d just done.
“The cogs have been set in motion once more.” Gooseneck’s voice sounded like he was right next to me. “Eternal endurance of your wickedest moments…you thought you had known Hell, Jack McCarthy? Well, now you’re there. And I am your humble guide. Welcome back! I expect to see you again! …And again! …And again!”
* * * * * *
I had never seen this particular island before. As far as I knew it hadn’t even been inked on any map. I hadn’t been gone too long, nor had I ventured too far; the mainland was still visible in the west. Even a half-blind invalid who had never set foot in the sea could have found his way back. So what was this place and why did it have the feeling I was the first one to probe its shores?
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableNick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A