On the Breakwater
by Don Katnik
“It’s only a mile,” I said. “We’ll be fine.”
Ellen rolled her eyes. “How old is that guidebook, Peter? Would another two bucks for a new one have killed you?”
“Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s no good,” I said. I turned back to our car, which sat alone by the breakwater trailhead. “Hey, guys! Want to see a lighthouse?”
“What’s that?” asked my six-year-old son, playing with his new toy — a misshapen monster with claw-tipped tentacles and a gaping, tooth-filled maw. Owen had found the monster in the tacky hotel gift shop and was now attacking his elder sister with it.
Lucy slapped it out of Owen’s hand. “Jerk!”
The toy struck the car door, snapping off a claw. Owen wailed. “Lucy broke Krake-O!”
“We’ll get you another one if I can’t fix it,” I said. You don’t have to cry about it, I didn’t add. “Lighthouses have a huge tower with a super-bright light on top to signal ships!” I said. When we’d started our Maine vacation a week ago, everything nautical had thrilled the kids. Now Owen just shrugged. “It sounds stupid.”
“How about it, Lucy?” I asked.
She didn’t look up from her book. “Sure, Dad. Whatever.” A thirteen-year-old girl’s ringing endorsement.
Owen swiped tears from his face. “I’m hungry!”
“We’ll eat afterwards. That place up the road with all the lobster traps and buoys around it looked cool.”
“That nasty tavern?” Ellen said. “I’d rather eat fast food again.”
Owen thrust Krake-O at her. “I want McNuggets!”
Lucy sighed and turned a page.
* * *
I herded my reluctant family to the foot of the breakwater that protected Rockland harbor from the ocean. Car-sized blocks of granite had been fit together like a long, scaled finger pointing out to sea.
Lucy closed her book but left a finger inside marking her place should real life prove less interesting. She pointed to the far end of the breakwater. “Is that the lighthouse?”
“Where’s the tower?” said Owen. “You said it was huge.”
He was right, the lighthouse was small and unimpressive. “It’s just far away,” I said. Ellen groaned and I kicked myself for reminding her of the long walk ahead.
Flat water stretched between the breakwater and shore. Rough waves chopped against the ocean side, spewing gouts of spray across the stone blocks. Gray clouds scudded overhead. I waited for the lighthouse’s beacon to sweep around so I could point it out, but it didn’t. A horn blew instead.
Owen clapped his hands. “It farted!” His face scrunched up as he forced a reply.
“Gross!” Lucy said. She hurried past him and started down the breakwater without us.
Ellen gripped my arm. “Honey, that’s really far.”
It was. Over breakfast, reading the used guidebook, I had pictured a bright sunny day with sailboats in the harbor and lots of people having fun, not just the four of us on this barren spit under a gloomy sky. The absence of any other human noise unnerved me, but I would not spend another day browsing tourist shops, picking through the same overpriced junk we’d seen a dozen times already. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” I said and followed Lucy.
There were deep cracks between the stone blocks that could swallow a guy’s toe — or a child’s foot. I concentrated on my own. When I looked up a few minutes later, Lucy had increased her lead and Ellen and Owen were lagging behind. “Come on!” I called.
“We’re going as fast as we can,” Ellen replied. “Do you want Owen to fall and break a leg?” She took an exaggerated step from one block to the next. Owen mimicked her.
I continued after Lucy, who I knew was less interested in getting to the lighthouse than in getting away from Owen. We were only thirty feet from shore, but already the water was rougher. Dark clouds were descending around us and the lighthouse bellowed from the murky distance. Owen was wrong: it was not making a rude noise, it was wailing like a lonely creature calling for a mate. Once, twice, three times.
Twenty minutes later, Lucy had disappeared, her yellow sweater swallowed by a mist that thickened by the minute. I glanced back. Ellen, Owen and the shore behind them were barely visible.
“Lucy!” The damp air absorbed my voice. I listened for a reply but heard only the lighthouse. Its forlorn call now held a hint of menace that sent butterflies flitting in my stomach.
“I’m going after Lucy,” I called back to Ellen. I hesitated a moment, choking on my reluctance to swallow crow. “Maybe you guys should head back.” Not waiting to hear Ellen’s smug reply to that, I kept going.
My world shrank to the stretch of breakwater ahead and the one behind. Other than the line of granite blocks, there was only fog and sea; only the crashing of waves against stone and the sloshing of water in the cavities beneath me. Straining to see ahead, I failed to notice the crack that grabbed my toe. I fell hard. Cursing, I painfully got to my feet and hurried on.
I strode as fast as I dared, watching my feet and the cracks between the blocks instead of looking ahead. I couldn’t miss Lucy on the narrow spit anyway. Then I froze. A small shape protruded from a crevice ahead, claw-tipped tentacles reaching up from a green torso. Krake-O. But Ellen and Owen had turned back. They were behind me; probably back at the car already. It must be a different toy dropped by another child.
I picked it up. It had one clawless tentacle, exactly like Owen’s. I looked ahead then behind. Soupy fog limited visibility to only a few feet of breakwater in either direction. Cold nausea settled in my belly. Had I gotten turned around when I’d fallen? Was I heading back towards the parking lot instead of out to the lighthouse? That would explain Krake-O.
I spun around searching in vain for some sign of my direction then stopped. How stupid, turning more circles in the fog. Which way was I facing now? Panic hit. I took several deep breaths, letting each one out slow until my mind cleared. I just needed to wait for the next blast from the foghorn — its whole purpose, after all, was to broadcast the lighthouse’s location.
I waited. And waited. Nothing. Just as panic began to overwhelm me again, the horn sounded, thin and distant. I turned, cocking my head, but it seemed to come from all around, echoing in the mist. I listened harder as it called again; this time, I was pretty sure, from behind me. Needing to be certain, I waited for the third and final call but heard a different cry — a human voice; high, thin and tight with fear.
“Lucy!” I called back. I ran towards the sound, heedless of the precarious footing, until my heart hammered and I gasped for breath. A savage cramp bit into my side, forcing me to slow. The fog was impenetrable, almost too thick to breathe. I stumbled on, stomach roiling with bright panic, holding tight to Owen’s toy. “Where are you?” I called. What if she’d fallen into the water? I stopped and peered into the frothing waves. A heavy splash sent cold shivers down my spine.
The foghorn bellowed from just ahead, piercing my ears and rattling my bones. Mist swirled and a shape loomed out of it. The lighthouse! I stepped up to it, afraid it would disappear like a mirage and leave me lost again. I touched its cold, wet foundation. The horn blasted again, the foundation trembling with its great voice. After it stopped, the sound rolling away through the fog, I called, “Lucy? Where are you?”
I hurried around the lighthouse, edging along the narrow strip of breakwater between the building and the sea. It was not a large structure and I soon was back to where I’d started with no sign of Lucy. The foghorn erupted as I scurried up the narrow, wet steps to the platform ringing the tower. I raced around it — still no Lucy. She must be moving, too; looking for me as I looked for her.
“Stay where you are!” I circled the catwalk again but she wasn’t up there, so I descended back down to the breakwater. Maybe she’d left the lighthouse while I’d been up on the catwalk or on the far side.
Or maybe she was in the water.
My heart clenched. I glimpsed a shape rolling in the waves and nearly fainted. I dashed forward, sliding down the dripping blocks and reaching into the water for Lucy, but my fingers closed on a slimy clump of seaweed instead. Waves slapped the rock around me, spray soaking my clothes and running down my face as I edged back up the slick stone. With no warning, the water below exploded.
A tentacle — long, dark and thick — shot from the sea. I screamed and ducked as it swung overhead and clacked against the lighthouse. A sharp claw at its end bit at the stone. I rolled backwards, gagging at the stench of dead fish. I started crawling away, but the claw clamped my foot like a vise.
Another tentacle, its tip gnarled and misshapen, burst from the water. I dropped Krake-O, grabbed the slick rocks, and pulled against the tentacle holding me. The monster attacking me looked just like Owen’s toy — including the amputated claw — only a hundred times larger.
A wild idea flashed through my mind. I let go with one hand and grabbed the toy again. Still hanging on with the other hand, I brought the toy to my mouth and bit it, tearing off the other claw. My foot was released. The real monster’s claw fell to the rocks, snapping and spurting green ooze. The tentacles, both clawless now, retreated into the fog-shrouded sea.
I scrabbled back gasping for breath, holding the toy tightly. I began retreating down the breakwater, then a small voice came from the far side of the lighthouse. “Daddy?”
“Lucy!” I edged past where the monster had disappeared, keeping close watch on the roiling waves.
“Daddy, help me. I’m scared!”
“Stay put. I’m coming.” I turned the corner of the lighthouse, but saw nothing but the end of the breakwater and the wild ocean beyond.
“Daddy!” Her voice came from further out. I struggled to understand from where.
“Are you on a boat?”
A peal of girlish giggles replied from the murk. They deepened into a visceral, wet chortle and clawless tentacles swooped at me from the fog. I jumped back, slamming into the base of the lighthouse. A gaping, tooth-filled maw loomed behind the searching tentacles.
Marshaling a desperate hope, I stepped forward, took aim, and hurtled Owen’s toy at the monster. “Go back to hell where you belong!”
My throw was perfect. The toy flew into the monster’s mouth. I waited, triumphant — but my voodoo lore was flawed. Instead of destroying it, eating its own talisman rejuvenated the monster. New claws sprouted from the ends of its tentacles and snapped at the air. The thing shrieked louder than the foghorn and reached for me. Just before it could grab me, a small yellow shape streaked from around the lighthouse. It blurred between us, pushing me back. Not waiting to see what it was, I turned and ran.
* * *
I fled down the breakwater sliding helter-skelter on the wet rocks, running for the shore and safety. I could barely see the rocks I raced across through the fog and wild spray. I waited for claws to grab me from behind, but there was no sound of pursuit.
When I finally stopped to look back, winded and with my side aching, the breakwater behind me was empty — just a straight line of bare blocks stretching back into the mist. I continued for shore.
Gradually the breakwater widened. The waves on the ocean side grew calmer, the granite blocks less slippery. The fog began to lift and suddenly I came out of it. The sky was dim but clear; it was evening now. I’d been out on the breakwater all day. I reached shore and slowly climbed the trail to the parking lot. It was empty except for the dark shape of our car, which looked normal and welcoming.
Had I really thought I’d been attacked by Owen’s monster? Krake-O on steroids? The idea was ludicrous, but the more likely possibility that I’d cracked up was too frightening to consider. I’d simply gotten myself worked up out there in the fog and imagined it all or seen something normal that, in the fog, had seemed monstrous. Whatever, I hadn’t seen anyone else coming back from the lighthouse and I couldn’t have missed them out on the breakwater, so my family must all be here, probably sleeping in the car.
The car was empty.
* * *
I walked the short distance to the nasty tavern with the lobster traps and buoys outside. It was empty except for an old bartender who looked up as I stumbled in. “Evening,” he said. “What can I get you?” As I came further into the light he added, “You look like you could use a drink more than just about anyone I’ve ever seen.”
I waved a hand, dismissing the offer. “Have you seen a woman and two kids? Maybe walking by earlier in the day?”
“No one’s been by here in hours,” the bartender said. He gestured at the big picture window facing the road. “They’d be pretty hard to miss, too. Something wrong?”
“We were out on the breakwater and I... I lost them.”
He gave me a long look. “Out on the breakwater?”
“Yes. We got separated in the fog. I thought they’d be in the car or maybe here, but...I don’t know. They must still be out there!”
“Fog? Mister, you aren’t making much sense. How about we call the sheriff, get this sorted out?”
I protested but he was already dialing the phone with one hand while he poured me a cup of coffee with the other. It was hot and strong and I felt a little better after a few sips. He was right, I had little chance of finding Ellen, Lucy, or Owen blundering out there by myself.
* * *
The sheriff was a large, solid man who took down my name, then listened to my story in silence. Then he said, “Let’s go take a look.” We rode back down to the parking lot in his cruiser. “What were they wearing when you saw them last?” he asked.
“My daughter had on a yellow sweater...” I remembered the flash of yellow that had pushed between me and...Krake-O.
The sheriff had pulled to the corner of the parking lot above the trailhead. “You went down here?” he asked.
He switched on the cruiser’s search light and pointed it onto the breakwater. We got out and walked down the trail, our shadows long and dark in the bright spotlight.
“We got separated in the fog,” I said. I followed the sheriff out onto the breakwater.
“Of course today!” I replied. We walked twenty or thirty feet.
“I just didn’t notice any fog out on the harbor today,” the sheriff said.
It was clear as a bell now. The town lights were visible clear across the harbor.
“And you say you went all the way out to the lighthouse?” he asked.
The sheriff stopped. “And just how’d you manage that?”
He stepped aside. Just past him, the breakwater ended in a jumble of blocks. Black water rolled in a thirty-foot gap between our end of the breakwater and where the rest of it continued out to the lighthouse.
I stared, dumbfounded. “I don’t understand!”
“Nor’easter washed it out,” the sheriff said.
“No, three years ago. So I’m just wondering how you got out to the lighthouse. Unless you swam.”
I stared at him. “But the guidebook said—” I stopped, remembering that the guidebook was seven years old. “Then where’s my family?”
The sheriff put a hand on my shoulder, gripping it as tightly as the monster’s claw had. “You tell me, mister.”
Copyright © 2012 by Don Katnik