Dean Orwell found himself adrift in a world of infinite black, an expanse of darkness more oppressive and disorientating than a moonless night in unfamiliar woods.
The old man had no inkling of where this place was or how he’d arrived there. He was dreaming, most likely. But Dean barely slept these days, let alone dreamt. And when he did, seldom could he recall the details of his nocturnal escapades upon waking.
No, this place of shadows felt altogether different. It felt real. And while he floated aimlessly through what appeared to be absolute nothingness, a chill in his bones alerted him to a horrid truth: he was not alone.
Whoever else Dean shared this space with had yet to reveal themselves, and he silently prayed they never would. In fact he had no great desire to uncover whatever secrets might be harbored here. But his primordial fear of the unrestricted dark and what it might conceal only truly evolved from a nagging worry into overwhelming despair upon realizing he could barely move or speak.
But Dean was not entirely without hope; a protective barrier—albeit a fragile one—enveloped him. It was not something that could be seen or touched, but nevertheless he knew it was there, thinly separating him from whatever lurked in the black and uncharted landscape. For a time, his apprehension was diluted by the womb-like tranquility offered by this invisible aura. But one cannot remain in the womb forever.
Time marched forward by what could have been seconds or hours, and as it did the distinct absence of noise that once defined this place failed to endure. From the silence rose a discordant choir of anguished voices—an onslaught of noise that seemed to be spilling out of the darkness itself. Dean’s ears buzzed with these unwelcome cries of death and pain, troubled howls that he came to believe belonged to his friends and neighbors. The world around him was dying, and this was its last gasp of life. One voice stood out above the rest, a boy who sounded like an animal wounded during a botched hunt, moaning as he fought for each and every breath.
Dean longed for relief as these tormented screams continued in a relentless crescendo. And just when he thought his eardrums might rupture from the unbearable dissonance, the cries were suddenly vanquished. It was as if a needle had been lifted from a record in his head. In the same instant, a glowing red light violently ripped its way across the horizon. The line of light, at first as thin as a discarded thread, grew in size, splitting the once empty void into two distinct halves.
While undoubtedly a strange occurrence, this sight alone did not engender the distressing sickness that curdled in Dean’s stomach. What began to take shape within the red border was the final tipping point; the thing that transformed what could have been a dream into a full-blown nightmare.
There, against the glow of the scarlet horizon, was a solitary figure; a misshapen silhouette of a man inside the bright backdrop. This figure did not simply appear within the red divide, but instead seemed to emerge from the top half of the black murk that had now been sliced in two. The man was crawling, not because it was incapable of walking or never learned how to. It crawled on all fours like an animal because it chose to. It wanted to.
The entity arched its spine and twisted fiercely, writhing as it attempted to inch forward. But Dean didn’t have long to prepare for its arrival—soon it moved defiantly, more easily making progress toward the other side of the fiery barrier. A colossal dread consumed him with every step it took, and that was before it spoke.
“I’m ready to move in,” it declared. The voice, at once both elegant and barbaric, pierced Dean’s ears like a vengeful bolt of lightning.
“So many worlds on fire, but yours is still so sweet and pleasant,” it teased. “For a little while.”
Dean was no longer scared or confused. Not because he had nothing to be afraid of, or because he suddenly understood what was happening, but because his heart had no more room to feel anything other than loss as he realized everything he owned, everything he knew, and everything he loved no longer belonged to him. It was this thing’s for the taking. It was coming. It was already here.
As the sinister figure neared the edge of the red light, almost touching Dean’s half of the divide, he noticed the line itself was still expanding in every direction. He turned to watch the route it charted, pushing through the desolate realm like a militant locomotive. The wormlike band of light curved back toward its point of origin, and without fanfare the two ends met, forming a broad red circle with Dean trapped in its center.
Now the crawling man was inside the circle too, but it froze in place before offering two more words.
Then it lurched forward, leaping to within inches of Dean’s face. He closed his eyes and prepared for the end of everything as the assailant extended a long, slender claw. But the end never came. A thundering crackle of energy sent the fiend flying backwards, expelling a wolfish howl as it disappeared back into the abyss.
At first Dean could only assume the translucent shield surrounding him had deflected the attack, but that wasn’t it at all. He opened his eyes to find a person hovering before him, a man who—unlike the invasive adversary—seemed to emit an almost celestial sort of light.
“He can’t hurt you, not anymore,” this new being declared. “You’re with me now.”
The man reached out, extending a marble white hand. Dean considered the offer while a soothing calmness washed over him.
“Okay,” Dean said, surprised and relieved to hear his own voice. “I’m with you now.”
He accepted the stranger’s hand and felt the unseen barrier surrounding him melt away as if it was never there, and then everything changed.
Darkness still surrounded him, but it was no longer impenetrable. His feet were firmly planted on the ground, and the only sound filling his ears was the pleasant rhythm of distant waves lapping the shore. Less pleasant was the aching pain that slithered through his fingers. He was still gripping something, tightly, but it was not the palm of some heavenly savior. His hand clutched the outer knob of his home’s front door.
I was sleepwalking, Dean thought in disbelief, questioning himself rather than truly comprehending the situation. He hadn’t done that since childhood, more than a few decades ago. Dean hoped the front porch was as far as he’d gotten—that at worst he’d awoken moments before leaving his cramped cottage and wasn’t on his way home from god knows where. He was lucky he hadn’t walked off into the damn ocean.
Dean stepped inside, haphazardly reaching for a glass of water he’d left on a coffee table earlier in the night. Still disoriented, he allowed it to slip from his grasp, but the room’s spongy green carpet prevented it from breaking.
Sebastian emerged from a dark corner to lick up the spill. The long-haired feline was his only housemate and had been since Ophelia died more years ago than he cared to recall. And as Dean begrudgingly marched toward his seventh decade of life, he had accepted the possibility that he may never again share a bed with anyone besides the cat. But despite this reality, he was not a particularly lonely or unhappy man. He liked where he lived, and the people who lived there liked him.
Born and raised in Farrow Point, Dean only traveled outside the town’s borders on rare occasions, a trait he shared with many of his fellow residents. The isolated hamlet was just large enough to provide its inhabitants with all of the comforts of modern life, but not so major an attraction that it brought in tourists and vacationers from all corners of the nation. Sure, they got visitors, but only in small droves during the summer months. And while the place had a few major roads, most of the shops and neighborhoods were easily within walking distance from each other. Dean loved walking the web of roads and trails throughout the town almost more than anything else. He was a familiar and friendly sight, though most people already knew him from his job at the Farrow Point Lighthouse. He wasn’t responsible for operating the beacon itself. No, he did nothing as important or heroic as warding off traveling vessels from the rocky beaches that peppered the edges of the coastal community. The lighthouse’s primary function, that of a guiding signal for ships in the night, had been automated years ago. Instead, Dean’s job was to sell tickets and give tours of the lighthouse to the couple dozen visitors it received on most days. There was part-time help available to assist when he was sick, or during holidays when Farrow Point did attract some guests, but for the most part it was his show to run and he liked it that way.
His mind drifted to the lighthouse now as he stood nervously in his own home. Its presence calmed him, and even the mere thought of it was a helpful remedy in the confusing aftermath of his bizarre evening. He was not a superstitious man. No, Dean Orwell was not one to believe in premonitions or to derive any semblance of meaning from dreams or nightmares. But something about the one he’d just had didn’t seem like a nightmare at all. It felt like something bigger, like a real event playing out just beyond the veil of the waking world. He laughed at himself for entertaining the notion. But irrational thoughts, and even ones that were a bit childish, seemed to come easier in quiet homes after midnight.
Already he was beginning to forget bits and pieces of it, but the key details remained seared in his brain. The dark and empty space. The dying screams of good, honest people. The red line that seemed to divide the world. The haunting figure, its voice, and its calculated approach lingered most of all. How had it all ended? Like quicksand the more he struggled to remember the faster it faded away.
Just as well, he thought.
The familiar structure of the lighthouse continued to fill more space in his mind. The tower rose from a patch of bright green grass, as if sprouting from the earth itself. It was partially surrounded by sharp boulders on a hill overlooking one of Farrow Point’s more pristine beaches. Nearby was a small structure that housed the office and ticket booth where he worked, a few spaces for parking, and the entrance to a vast park and nature reserve. The tower itself was a modest height with precisely 216 steps from top to bottom that coiled around in a tight spiral.
An echo of a dream.
Ignore it. Focus on the lighthouse.
He almost didn’t recognize his own words of encouragement, but he continued tracing the tower’s shape in his mind. For the most part the lighthouse was a stone structure with few windows, and on top was a gallery surrounding the lantern room which had been painted a royal blue. Although not a towering behemoth, it could be seen from most of the main roads and avenues throughout town. The landmark was a defining feature of Farrow Point, and knowing he played a role in its upkeep was important to Dean. He cared about the town and its history, and he wanted to preserve it in his own little way.
Sebastian trotted off, leaving Dean alone with his thoughts. His heart rate had slowed, and he breathed easier, but the prospect of getting more sleep seemed unlikely. Maybe it was because he lived alone and had few hobbies, or perhaps it was just his genetic destiny, but in recent years Dean had come to realize that he suffered from anxiety. He had no clinical diagnosis nor did he seek one out; the symptoms were mild and manageable enough that it had yet to become an overbearing presence in his life. But the condition tended to exacerbate itself at night, and waking up on his front porch an hour before dawn certainly didn’t help.
Rather than spend the next two hours floundering in bed, Dean began his day ahead of schedule. He fed Sebastian, spent a few minutes combing the last of his graying hair, and put together a quick meal for himself. Cooking was not a passion but he could handle breakfast just fine. He grabbed a few eggs and milk from the fridge before setting the stove to a medium-high heat. Before placing the pan on the stove he paused. The heating element was glowing red. A crimson spiral. Maybe the nightmare was a premonition after all. Some labyrinthine warning from the gods that he would burn his house to ash while cobbling together a paltry breakfast. More nonsense. He proceeded to cook his eggs. They were a little burnt, but his house remained standing. He finished the meal without incident and added the empty plate to the teetering stack of dishes in the sink.
“Try to have a good day, Sebastian,” Dean said as he slipped on his shoes and left through the backdoor.
He sat at the edge of his patio and took a moment to tie a troublesome shoelace. Gazing out at the yard before him, Dean could barely make out the garden and walkway under the pale moonlight. The stone path led to a fragile wooden fence complete with a small door he never bothered locking. Just beyond the fence, his grassy yard transitioned into a meager hill of dirt and sand, gently sloping down to the seashore. The lighthouse was only a few beaches away, and a walk alongside the water would surely eliminate the last vestiges of uneasiness that still clung to him.
Dean stood up, ready to depart. And then he heard something. Not the squawks of an irritated seagull trying to catch its morning breakfast. Not the sound of tepid waves crashing lightly against the shore. Not even the sound of his neighbor’s car alarm which seemed to go off at least once a day. No, the sound filling Dean’s eardrums was foreign to him; at the very least unfamiliar in his current setting.
The air filled with a staticky hum as if he had tuned into the fading signal of some lost radio station. Where was the sound coming from?
“The sky,” Dean said aloud.
He looked up. Though the sun was still absent from the sky, the lighthouse and its radiant beam swept across the horizon every few seconds. During one of these brief rotations, as Dean frantically searched for some source of the distorted sound, he swore there was something floating in the clouds. Not something. Someone.
The next rotation of light revealed nothing unusual. There had been nobody in the sky, of course. After all, the corners of his sleep-deprived eyes still hosted a layer of crust, and his vision was less than ideal even on crisp summer afternoons with a full night’s rest.
The noise cut out suddenly and Dean realized he had dug his nails into the patio’s splintering wooden boards. His anxiety was bubbling to the surface again, but the uncanny experience did not dissuade him from leaving home. He had already chalked up the vision of a floating figure to tiredness and poor eyesight, and the static could have been the product of some military test conducted at the base a few miles outside town. Maybe it was some new type of plane or communication device. This explanation would be suitable enough for now, though Dean wouldn’t have been as comfortable believing it had he known Sebastian was inside, curled up beneath the couch. Sebastian only hid when Dean had visitors.
He stashed the experience away into the towering filing cabinets of thoughts and worries that filled his mind. The drawers of these cabinets, brimming with irrational fears, ancient memories, and lists of things to do (most of which he’d never get around to doing), would open and close at random throughout the day, demanding his immediate attention while he tried to work, or fish, or do just about anything else. He hoped the memories of this particular night would be stored away for as long as possible.
With his shoes sufficiently tied and only a minor splinter in his right hand, Dean stood up and made his way over the small hill on the fringe of his property. The beach behind his home was strewn with pebbles and seaweed, making it an unpopular destination for sunbathers or kids building sandcastles. The only sign of human disturbance was a trail of footsteps near the water’s edge. He followed these footsteps, his own from the previous day.
A mile away the lighthouse stood proudly, as much a beacon for Dean as it was for the few fishing boats headed toward Farrow Point that morning. His eyes remained locked on it throughout the duration of his ten-minute walk. Beginning his days like this made it impossible not to think about Ophelia.
Good, he thought. He never wanted to begin his days thinking of anyone else.
Soon he left the beach and rounded the small path leading up to the lighthouse parking lot. At the tower’s base sat a narrow structure that Dean sometimes described as his office. In reality he seldom sat inside the ticket booth, instead preferring to be outside, sitting on the lawn or even by the front gate, greeting guests as they arrived.
But this morning, thoughts of smiling tourists were dashed from his mind. Something was wrong, and he knew it before he even approached the ticket booth. The window was all but gone; only a few shards of glass remained jutting out of the frame. The rest scattered into hundreds of pieces across the pavement.
Why? More than anything, Dean asked himself this simple question. He assumed this was the work of someone hoping to make a quick buck, but that explanation really made little sense. The lighthouse received few visitors in the waning days of fall, and tours only cost five dollars—kids were free. Rarely did more than a couple hundred dollars sit in the cash register, and that was on a particularly busy day. Maybe the thief didn’t know or care, but it just didn’t seem worth the trouble to Dean.
Cautiously he approached the office door, realizing for the first time that the culprit could still be inside. Farrow Point was a safe place; he couldn’t recall the last time someone had been assaulted within the town’s borders. But he wasn’t stupid. He knew a situation like this could quickly escalate if the intruder was cornered. They might even be carrying a weapon.
He reached for his keys but stopped when he noticed the office door was hanging open. The vandal must opened it from the inside rather than risking another journey through the window frame, now decorated with shards of daggered glass. Made sense. What didn’t was what Dean found next. His perfectly reasonable theory that the lighthouse had been visited by a petty thief was about to be challenged.
After flipping on the lights to confirm the small building was empty, Dean opened the register and counted money. Every cent was there, but something else was missing. A second set of keys. The keys Dean kept in his desk. The keys that not only unlocked the office but the lighthouse itself.
The lighthouse. Was someone in the lighthouse?
Dean shed a tear. At first he wasn’t sure why. He cried not out of fear for his safety, or because someone had shattered the window, or even stolen his keys. He was worried. Worried about what they were doing in the lighthouse. The lighthouse meant more to him than he sometimes realized, and the possibility that some immature teenager or rowdy drunk was in there desecrating the place, well, it was all almost too much to take. They wouldn’t just be defacing a town landmark. Whether they knew it or not, the act would be a personal attack against him and Ophelia’s memory.
Part of him wanted to call the police. Part of him wanted to run home. He knew he should probably do both, but instead he did neither.
Dean attempted to compose himself, using his sleeve to absorb any last tears. He left the office, and now facing the lighthouse entrance he could see the door was indeed open. What would he do if someone was still inside? He had no idea. Perhaps foolishly he decided that would be something to figure out if and when it happened. Dean’s affection for the lighthouse and his role as its caretaker served as a source of strength he now drew from. The fear of what might happen once he stepped inside was not at the forefront of his mind.
Approaching the entrance, Dean realized the inside of the tower was still shrouded in darkness. Though the lights lining the structure’s staircase had not been turned on, he had enough foresight to grab the cheap flashlight from his desk drawer. He shined it through the open doorway, but the beam was so faint that it barely made an impact against the morning’s natural light slowly filtering through the clouds.
Dean blindly took two steps inside before his sneakers connected with something wet. A splash of sound echoed up the hollow interior, and he stopped before ever reaching the staircase. He didn’t need to point the flashlight down to decipher what type of substance now coated the bottom of his shoes. The ever-present scent of saltwater in the air was now eviscerated by a different, unmistakable scent. Blood. It filled his nasal passages strongly enough to trigger a cough.
Dean stepped backwards and tripped over himself in a panic. He landed on the ground, his fragile spine cushioned only moderately by a patch of grass just outside the entrance. From this new vantage point on the dew-soaked grass he pointed the flashlight upwards, affording him a view of about two dozen steps worth of the structure’s metal staircase. The stairs curved tightly inside, twisting upward like the skeletal structure of a coiled serpent. Yes, Dean could see the steps. The steps covered in thick, warm blood. Blood that did not originate from a source on the ground floor but had simply pooled there. It came from above. It was dripping down the stairs as if someone had emptied a can of red paint at the top of the lighthouse.
The dream—the nightmare was creeping back inside of him, forcing its way out of his mind’s filing cabinets. It was spreading like a disease throughout his entire body, paralyzing him in the process.
Someone was hurt and bleeding. They were dying. Were they dead? What in god’s name had happened inside the lighthouse? No, not just the lighthouse. It was his lighthouse. He had no legal claim to ownership—that belonged to the state—but it was Dean who was there, day after day, caring for the place. And now look at the place.
The blood continued to drip from step to step, forming a maddening trail that disappeared from sight as the spiral ascended higher into the tower. Whatever plans Dean had to handle the situation evaporated. Almost without realizing it he was back on his feet and running toward the office, moving faster than he had in some years. Bursting through the open door he snatched the phone off the wall and dialed the police.
“Please send the chief,” he gasped, cutting off the operator before she got out two words.
“Sir, hold on,” she said as politely as possible.
“Send everyone,” Dean persisted. “I’m at the lighthouse. My lighthouse.” The fear in his voice was transforming into anger. He didn’t like it. He hadn’t felt really, truly angry for a very long time.
“Sir, can you tell us what’s happening?”
“My whole damn world just went up in flames is what’s happening,” he exclaimed.
Worlds on fire.
Another echo of a dream.
“You’re saying the lighthouse is on fire?” A hint of doubt crept into her voice.
“No, I’m sorry.” He took a second to compose himself. “Not a fire. Someone’s been hurt, killed maybe.”
“We have someone on the way if you can try to stay on the line sir.”
“The blood,” he pleaded, now sobbing into the phone, “someone covered my lighthouse in blood!”