Sasha grew up by the seashore. She grew up listening to the sound of the waves crash against the rocky beaches of Coastal Maine. She was always a cute kid, but didn’t know much about fashion. She wore hand-me-downs and bargain bought clothing from yard sales and Goodwill. Her parent’s money, what little they had, would go to better things than consumerism. She enjoyed listening to her father’s vinyl collection and had very little interest in conforming to the popular music. She didn’t have a lot of friends as a kid, and preferred to lie in her bed, letting the sun stream on her body as she moving her fingers along the pages of Stephen King novels. From an early age she had loved horror, lived for the thrill of life’s unraveling.
But that, you should already know.
She had met him a few times, which should come as no surprise considering that they only lived an hour away from each other. The first time, she was nine and they passed by each other in a Hannaford’s parking lot. Too nervous to say anything, she kept her lips tightened, before turning back and yelling at him, “I love The Gunslinger. It’s the best thing anyone’s ever written.” He turned back to face her, but said nothing, only cocking his head, unsure of whether to be more concerned with the small mousey-haired girl frothing over his book or the derelict parenting job of letting a kid read something like that.
The second, and most notable time was when she was 16. They met in the fiction aisle of Merrill’s Bookshop in Hallowell, and she wasted no time figuring how to make an impression. With what she believed to be casualness she asked, “Do you have any recommendations on what I should read?” To this, he looked at her, his eyes magnified behind his glasses, and chimed, “No, I don’t work here.” Noting the apparent salt of him, she backed away and went outside only to find herself encountering him in the parking lot.
She was smoking a cigarette in the afternoon sun, filling up her lungs and coughing them out with a certain lack of cool.
“Hey kid, put that fucking thing out. Don’t kill yourself yet. There’s more to life than this parking lot. It’d do you good to remember that.”
To this she frowned quietly, despondent fully in her hero, and flicked the butt at him. He smiled faintly, shook his head, and then stopped in front of his car to look back at her.
“You know, you remind me of myself at that age. Vengeful towards the world, for not a lot of reason.”
To this Sasha smiled. “You know, Mr. King. I’ve read almost everything you wrote, it means a lot to hear you say that.” To this he smiled back at her, something that she found oddly mystifying from the horror writer.
“I’m happy to hear it kid. And don’t think I don’t recognize you. Or the voice at least.”
To this she scrunched up her face, confused before, he smiled wider, showing the yellow of his teeth and the gleaming silver of his fillings.
“The Gunslinger is my favorite one too.”
And with that he hopped into his car, and drove off into the sweltering afternoon.
Sasha sat on the hood of her car for a while longer, feeling the sun beat down on her, until the sweat started to amass under her oversized Brunswick Dragons Soccer t-shirt and the thought of another cigarette was totally voided from her mind. She strode across the parking lot one last time, to toss the rest of the pack in the garbage, an act that filled her with great pride until she broke down and bought a new one after a week.
A year and a half later, when she could think of nothing else to do, she wrote him a letter. Amongst layers of hopes that he’d remember her and apologies for bothering him, she wrote one simple question: how do I know what I want to do with my life? It’s a funny question, to write to a horror writer. Such a sentimental detail to be given to a weaver of fear, but somewhere along the way, she knew he wouldn’t fail her. Just like in the parking lot of Merrill’s the previous August. And sure enough, two weeks later, a letter appeared in the mailbox.
In it he wrote only one paragraph. It wasn’t long or very thought provoking. Only honest.
What it basically said was that he had no fucking clue. And that she shouldn’t either. And that was fine. He reassured her that in time it would come, if she was open with every possibility. Lastly, he wrote a curious line, which deconstructed everything placed down before. It said something along the lines of:
“However, if your passion is obscured by fear and darkness, than you must approach the future with a flashlight and a sharp knife.”
A variation of that line was what started her college essay. A college essay that was read by a RISD Admissions staff and made their eyes widen with intrigue. She had always dreamed of being a writer and putting words down onto paper with as much effort as her hero, but she realized that that was not her calling. She wouldn’t go fighting into that darkness with a pen, but she would wade into a friendly fear wielding a camera.
As part of her admissions process required that she supply them with a sample of her material in order for further consideration. As someone who basked in the thought of being a photographer, but harbored no true training or skill, this though sent chills down her spine. She felt as though she was turning in on herself; a process of reserve metamorphosis exemplified by snapdragons turning into skulls when autumn rolls in. Using her money from working the Ice Cream stand throughout the summer, she bought herself an old-style film camera, which cost her a pretty penny, and a banged up, but functional, polaroid, which she found dirt cheap at a yard sale. With both of these prepared, and the closing moments of her high school career before her, she felt prepared to take on this challenge.
For the first few weeks of September, she went on long drives with her friend Olivia, pulling off to the side of the road when they saw something noteworthy, and taking a few short photos. While most of these were throwaways of mountains, or blurry clouds obscured by the sun, there were a few pieces of gold. A silhouette photo of four young boys swimming around in a river, a candid shot of two beekeepers standing in front of a field of goldenrod, an emotional photo of Olivia staring into the remains of an abandoned barn with wonder. They were fine images, showing a variety of skills and masterful knowledge of aperture and focus. The portfolio could pass off as that of someone who had been doing it for years, not months. But still, she wasn’t happy. King’s words rang in her head; there was a sickening blandness unless she was tackling fear head on.
The fact of the matter was, these were all too easy. And not knowing what to do, once again, she wrote a letter. This time there were no apologies, no persistent hopes for remembrance. There was only straightforwardness: a delineation of her plan, and the unmasking of her desire to step beyond her typical artistic conventions. She didn’t want to be another artistic hip girl; she wanted the admissions officer to be transfixed by her work. She wanted them unable to pull away from the photo, equally disturbed and smitten with the shadows and wavering fear hovering over the scene. She wanted the window between fact and fiction to be shattered and for the admissions officer to slice their hands trying to pick up the glass.
Her response came much faster, than the first letter. Within days. However, this letter, now written in the terrible scrawl of a novelist, was only four lines long. Not even lines, truth be told. Places. Names. And one final word at the end.
While this list filled her with a bunch of hope and increased fire, it came with a dampening presence as well. The Beckett Castle wouldn’t let them in to take pictures, so there was little point in checking the place out. There was no way for her to get out to Goat Island to take pictures of the haunted house there, so that was a bust as well. The campground he suggested, which was supposedly a known Indian burial ground, was much too far of a drive to be considered in the dead of night, so in reality, there was only one true option left.
And this one sat queasy in her stomach, unsure if it really wanted to be the one to happen.
About 30 miles north, on the outskirts where Bath meets the Atlantic, there sits a lonely lighthouse on a piece of sand jutting out into the ocean. It is not pretty or well known, but is associated with a particularly depressing history.
Apparently, in the early 70s, the family who owned the lighthouse and the cottage nearby all disappeared in the middle of a hurricane. The bizarre thing is that the waves never broke over the beachfront, and the wind only knocked down a few trees. The only true effect that the storm had was the smashing of one commercial fishing boat, after the lighthouse head had gone out. Why it had, or what happened to the lighthouse keeper still remains a mystery. Days later, the body of the wife washed up on a down the coast, amongst large pieces of driftwood. Then apparently, almost a decade later, the skeletons of the twin sons were found, only partially decomposed, deep down in a nearby cave. Seeing as the lighthouse is fairly isolated, there is not a lot of testimony to add details to the case. The only recorded evidence was from the man whose fishing boat crashed against the Cliffside. After having his boat catch aflame, and almost drowning in the surf, he was badly scarred and burned, but able to tell investigators that after the lighthouse beam went off, he saw two glowing orbs hovering on the beach. Both were an odd translucent yellow, “like dulled cat eyes” he said, and claimed to have attempted to steer the boat towards them.
This is what they would recreate: a photo on that beach, under a starry night, with the rickety old lighthouse standing tall in the background. Sasha recruited Olivia to help again as well as her young brother, hoping they wouldn’t object to getting put under sheets and shining flashlights. That way, they would be the amorphous blobs the man described as being orbs on the beach. They arrived at the spot, a little before sunset on a cold October afternoon, with the sky begging to open up and spit snow. The wind lashed against their faces as they walked slowly around the grounds, inspecting the rocky beach and staring intently at the majesty of the lonely lighthouse. It used to have been painted with a red spiral along its side, but it had since faded with the rain and sea mist, making it only a light pink faintly discernable from the white. In reality, none of it was truly white but rather a cancerous yellow or bile green near the bottom. Urchins held tightly to the rocks underneath it, where the cliff face was jagged and unfriendly. The tide rocked against it brittle, doing the same job a sharpening stone would do to a sword.
When the sun went down, Sasha got everyone in position and began taking shots. They played around with the lighting, aperture speed, and focus for the following two hours until the water reached up to their ankles and moon was hidden behind the clouds. Then as they were getting ready to pack up, the light in the lighthouse suddenly clicked off. The old hum of power suddenly stopped and they were only left with the slow rumble of the waves. Olivia threw the sheet off of her head and in the beam of her flashlight; Sasha could see her anxious face.
“What happening?” She asked quietly, her voice a whisper slightly louder than the waves.
“I don’t know. We should go though, do you want to pack up?” Olivia nodded in the darkness and they began to move back towards the car. As they loaded the sheets into the backseat with Olivia’s little brother, Sasha began to feel an odd prickling on the back of her neck. The feeling persisted for a long second, which was shrugged over by Sasha, until she could feel a distinct cold envelop her arm. It was as though she had slid her right arm into a freezer or into the depths of a storm cloud. She pulled it away quickly, bumping her elbow against the glass of the back window, and looking up across the beach.
And there she saw them. Two large yellow lights, the size of beach balls, hovered feet above the ground. She looked over at Olivia, who stood transfixed on the opposite side of the car, her breath drawn deep in her breath. While Olivia stayed in a perplexed haze of silence, Sasha felt the tug of the camera against her neck and began running back across the path towards them. She expected them to flee or dissipate as she drew nearer, but they didn’t and she stood yards away, on the jagged shale and slate of the beach, allowing herself a quick moment to focus her camera and take a few shots.
She shot the first without flash and then two more with flash. However, when the flash of the camera shot out a second time, the orbs had suddenly disappeared. She stood in the still darkness for a second, her eye pressed against the viewfinder, staring into the emptiness, before sighing slowly, letting her adrenaline fade, and dropping the camera down around her neck. As it bounced against her chest, she took a deep breath of the cool night air and stared once more out at the water.
A woman stood in the waves, staring with dead eyes as Sasha. A soggy dress full of rips, tears, and entanglements of seaweed clung to her emaciated figure, just a shade more pallid than they grey of her skin. Sasha’s eyes turned wide and her body rigid as marble, as this woman clamored up out of the surf and onto the rocky beach. She stumbled with drunken legs that appeared to have forgotten to walk in the evening. Her hair was an elegant braid turned into a frizzled mess, which also bore years collections of seaweed. Her face was gaunt and lifeless, as haunting as her mouth filled with rotten blackened teeth or her listless moon-swallowed eyes.
Sasha attempted to move her legs but to no avail. The harder she forced the muscles to do what she wanted, the more apparent a severance in the brain appeared to be. She could only watch this scaly woman slither out of the water, stutter her feet across the rocky beach, and meet her in the tall grass of the bank. A scream clung in her throat, but the larynx was too petrified to maneuver it into being. There was only an eerie stillness, so quiet that the blinking of her eyes resonated like a ticking clock.
A lazy finger rose from the woman’s hand, and pointed in her direction, leaving every hair on Sasha’s body to stand up. Waves of panic ran down her arms, adrenaline coursed through her veins, and goose bumps filled all available real estate on her skin. This finger probed through the blackness of the beach, and appeared inches away from her eyeballs. She could see the dirt underneath her nails and the pruned skin in the deep blue of the night sky. Finally, as it came within centimeters of her face, Sasha pulled back with everything in her brain, and her body toppled backwards, falling into a thicket of prickers and the soft earth below.
She closed her eyes for only a quick second, letting the most meaningless prayer fill her brain. And when she opened her eyes there was nothing. Just the oscillating beam of the lighthouse turned back on. It swam above her, cutting through the midnight blue and wrapping a lasso around the blackness over her head. She took several deep breaths, combating her overwhelming desire to hyperventilate and throw up, before standing up on ridiculously shaky legs and going back to the car.
Olivia met her halfway there, wrapping her in a large hug and making sure she was okay.
“What happened,” she asked genuinely. “You were just standing there, mannequin like, and then you crumpled. Like a bus had run you over. Also you were gurgling.”
Her eyes widened in response to hearing this from her friend. Apparently, they hadn’t seen the woman. They had just seen Sasha, gurgling and grunting into the blackness like a madman and then fall over in hysterics.
Olivia drove the car ride home, while Sasha sobbed in the passenger seat. She didn’t know why she was crying or who she was crying for, but she was oddly sure that it wasn’t for her. The wave of terror still clung to her, stitching itself inside of her skin, refusing to leave her. The goosebumps held on her skin for many hours later, until she lay in the warm bath, letting the soothing water dissolve them away. The woman appeared in her nightmares from time to time. However, instead of being a cause for alarm, she was like an old friend. An obstacle passed in human form that can do no damage on the other side. This comforted Sasha, when she woke up in the middle of the night, riddled with goosebumps and sweat.
There is an end to our human suffering somewhere, and it comes through a willingness to not lose yourself to fear.
She returned to that beach years later, bringing a hand written letter. Silently, she slid it under a rock and left it. The letter read,
“There is nothing left for you on this beach. No more haunts left to claim. Let the living haunt the living. Let the dead haunt the dead. The lighthouse is not a beacon home, but a way of knowing not to come back to where you’ve been. Flow with the water, the let the waves guide you home.”