None of us remember how we came to this lonely island, where the waves pound the rocks and the mainland fades in the distance like an old photograph. We only remember waking, face down on the floorboards in the attic of the lightkeeper’s house. There isn’t a lightkeeper anymore, just a man who comes every few years to drop off another girl. And despite having seen him bring new girls, none of us ever remembers being one of them, limp and slumped over his shoulder, oblivious to the world.
Today the five of us are sitting in the grass, trying to enjoy the afternoon sun after the fog has rolled back into the ocean. We haven’t seen the man in ages, possibly more than a few years, but I still remember what his boat looks like, even from a distance. His small craft approaches; my stomach knots at the sight. We jump to our feet and hide, keeping our distance as he moors the boat. A snarling Doberman guards the craft; we don’t dare get close, or climb inside. The man unleashes the animal, who bounds from the boat, waiting for his master.
The man emerges from the craft with a girl in his arms. She’s angelic as she sleeps, and we can tell she’s younger than the rest of us. She looks to be about fifteen, six years younger than me. The girls have gotten younger over the years. We think it’s because he’s getting old, and younger girls are lighter to carry. Or maybe older girls have gotten wiser, and the young ones are easier prey. Despite our age difference, we could all be sisters: we all have dark hair and green eyes. But the new girl is dressed differently than the rest of us, wearing a black concert t-shirt with cut-off sleeves and tight black jeans with rolled-up cuffs. She has black chipped nail polish on her fingers, and her feet are bare, like the rest of us who were brought to the island.
He shifts the girl’s position, slinging her over his shoulder. He huffs, wiping his brow with the rolled-up sleeve of his button-down shirt. His dog runs beside him, snarling and barking toward the cottage. We watch and wait, holding our breath. We used to plead with the man, begging him to take us home, but he’s only ever ignored our fists, or sent his angry dog to ward us off, so we don’t even try anymore.
He carries her to the front door and lets himself in. Soon he’ll be walking down the hall, pausing below the hatch in the ceiling that opens to the attic. With his free hand, he will pull it down, lowering the stairs that unfold, and he will climb up. He will place the girl on the floor; her body will thud clumsily. Her clothes will be askew, the way all of ours were when we woke. Bruises will mark her body, like the ones that stain the rest of us, even to this day. Mine circle my neck, a ring in the shape of hands and fingers, still purple and angry after all these years.
After leaving the girl, he will cross the attic, returning to the ladder, his booted feet resounding on the old, worn floorboards. He will step down each rung, one by one by one, then he will shut the hatch behind him.
He finally exits the lightkeeper’s house; he and his animal return to the boat. The craft departs, becoming smaller as it heads toward the horizon, swallowed up in the blur where land meets ocean.
The other girls look at me, our eyes signaling to each other. We breathe a sigh of relief, then dash toward the cottage, stumbling through the long, unkempt grass and wild daisies that somehow grow on this rock in the middle of the ocean. We want to be there for the new girl when she wakes, like we’ve done for all of us. The girls enter, rush down the hall, and lower the hatch to the attic. They clamber up like monkeys, vanishing in the dark space above. I stay behind for a moment, doing my nightly ritual, even though it’s still daylight, moving silently from room to room. I lock the front door, sliding the latch until it clicks, then I jam a chair against it, for extra safety. I close windows, pulling shutters tight, securing them from intruders and storms. I take an extra round, pacing methodically, making sure all is well. Then I follow the girls up, closing the hatch behind me.
We sit, intending to keep watch the whole night. Cassandra strokes the new girl’s hair as she sleeps. Trish cries, knowing something isn’t right, but like all of us, she can’t remember why. The others, Julia and Maddy, stay silent, worried. I rock back and forth, hugging my knees to my chest until my legs are so cramped I have to stand.
I look out the small window in the attic. The fog has returned, and the sea has risen all around us, beating the rocks that circle the island. I can’t make out the coast, I can barely see through the mist. We’d tread lightly tonight, because even though we watched the man disappear into the horizon, we always fear his return.
We fell asleep in spite of ourselves. All of us wake on the floorboards, which creak as we begin to stir. The new girl rubs her eyes, smearing the black eyeliner on her lids. “Where am I?” she asks.
“You’re on the island,” the ever-helpful Trish says.
None of us know.
The new girl sits up and groans. “You don’t know where we are?”
We shake our heads.
She stands, stretches, and walks to the window, resting her pale forehead against the glass, then turns toward us. “Nobody knows where we are, do they,” she says, more a statement than a question.
We say nothing. Nobody knows we’re here. The only person who comes and goes is the man.
“You,” she points to me, “where did you get those bruises?”
“I don’t know. I woke up with them.”
“Is my neck bruised?” the new girl asks.
We all nod. There are no mirrors in the attic, otherwise we would have shown her.
“What do they look like?”
“They’re not too bad,” Cassandra says, softening the truth. Trish nods.
The girl touches her neck and winces at the pain.
Nobody tells her the bruises last forever.
I hold up my hand, forcing the girls to stop chattering. I strain to listen; we all do. Seconds become infinite; I am holding my breath. Satisfied that the man hasn’t returned, I open the hatch and let the girls down.
On the second day, the new girl tells us her name—Annika. That night, after tearing through the cottage looking for anything that might signal for help, like a phone or radio, she finds nothing—as we all did, back in our day—and rages until she becomes ill. We take turns keeping watch, sitting by her listless, shivering body until she falls into a deep slumber. We had all felt it—the shock of realizing we were never going home. Our dreams were torn from us in a sickening lurch; loved ones faded to ghosts in our memories. We’d all hoped for beautiful lives, going to college, barbecues on beaches with best friends, sunsets and first kisses, lovers and weddings. So on, and so on, and so on.
And we had all experienced the rage. After the rage came the fever, then the slumber for weeks, then waking to a strange, calm acceptance, forgetting everything. We stopped asking questions. We busied ourselves caring for each other instead. We became our own family, combing each other’s hair, brushing and braiding and weaving. We made up games, sitting back to back with our eyes closed, attempting to read each others’ minds, collapsing in fits. We spent warm days outside in the tall grass, weaving daisy chains and flower crowns, or playing tic-tac-toe with stones. Sometimes we played chase in the sun.
Other times we simply stared at the ocean, our silence haunted by longing. We were waiting for something; we no longer knew what. In those moments, the advent of fog was a welcome balm, the precursor to storms that shrouded our house in curtains of rain and gray. We moved inside, passing the time reading musty, faded books, whatever we could find: tomes on nautical terms, how to tie knots, old sailors’ lore about weather. We pored over faded maps we’d found stuck in the pages, without remembering why. We traced our fingers over latitudes and longitudes, over names of islands, spits, shoals, and rocks. Then we told stories into the wee hours, or played cards with a deck where all the queens had been lost. On rare nights we made shadow monsters by lamplight; their forms danced beyond the kitchen table, melding and warping into the dark. Eventually, we’d tire and grow hushed, and our nightly ritual would begin. I’d shepherd the girls down the hall with a lantern, ushering them up the ladder into the attic, then I’d do my rounds, sealing the cottage against whatever the tide might bring. I’d climb upstairs, then blow out my lamp and shut us all in, taking my place alongside the others on the floor, hearing the waves crash against the rocks.
Our days cycled like this without end. We lost track of them: no one thought to mark their passing in any way. Yesterdays and tomorrows flowed together; time no longer mattered.
All we knew was that the rains grew heavier when they came, and the house felt thick with dampness, swollen as if the sea had permeated every wall. Sometimes drawers stuck, and floorboards creaked like they might buckle against each other, and the house groaned at night, unable to contain itself. When the clouds parted again, we ventured outside, our feet and legs wet from the grass. We noted how weathered our house had become, how faded and chipped the paint, how the shutters had begun to rot. Metal fixtures were corroded from salt and tarnished with rust. We couldn’t stem the tide of decay.
Sometimes mice overran the terrain; we had no idea how they got here. They darted through the thickets of daisies, evading birds of prey that circled overhead, cawing and screeching, swooping for meat. Sometimes the daisies grew waist high, and the landscape of the island shifted in the changing light, distorting as clouds passed overhead and darkened the earth, and the sun slid from east to west, sinking into the end of the world. We repeated phrases to ourselves. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning: warning, warning.
The one constant was the lighthouse, ever looming. Some days we heaved open the door and stood at the bottom, craning our necks upward, dizzied by the sight, a spiral that knew no end, lurching into infinity. Some of us would dart up the narrow stairs into the tower, only making it halfway, having made the mistake of stopping to look down. Dismayed by the terrifying height, we’d descend slowly, gripping the rail with eyes half closed, hearts seizing with every step. We’d return to the house, seal ourselves up in the attic, and wait for the delicious oblivion of sleep.
Today we sit in the grass, taking sun on our faces. We are silent, pensive, our daisy crowns wilting.
A dot moves on the horizon, and my gut twists.
It’s the man.
He approaches in his craft, the roar of his engine saws the air as it grows louder.
He has arrived.
He kills the engine and moors the boat, then steps out of it, a new girl slung over his shoulder, a tiny thing not more than six years old.
We’re frozen; we don’t even try to hide.
We wait for him to finish his ritual, his approach and entrance to the lightkeeper’s house, the ascendance into the dark space, leaving the young girl for dead.
Moments pass. He exits the cottage empty-handed, and we scramble toward it; we don’t even wait for him to leave the island.
We rush toward the attic, pulling down the hatch and scurrying up. We find the girl on the floor where we had found the rest of them, where we had found each other.
We kneel by her side. She’s unconscious, bruised on her neck like I was, with spots of blood on her poorly-buttoned shorts. Annika holds the unconscious girl in her lap, stroking her face. Trish begins crying, while Julia and Maddy mutter, and Cassandra rocks. I descend below, remembering my own ritual, securing the house against harm. When I ascend again, we keep vigil all night.
Weeks pass, or at least we believe it to be so. The girl never wakes, but we maintain our watch, taking turns as day breaks, so some of us can feel the sun on our faces and rest in the daisies, while others sit with the child. At night we all return to the attic and sleep in a circle around her. Some nights the ocean surges in a deafening roar, and I force myself to stay awake the longest, straining for the sounds of everyone’s breath.
One night, after we’ve all returned to the attic, Julia sings a lullaby. The girls grow quiet; Julia’s voice haunts us all. I feel something stir inside me, feelings I can’t express, like the first swells of a storm. The littlest begins to convulse, moaning and thrashing, eyes fluttering open, rolling back in her head. One by one, the rest of the girls jerk and drop: Trish, Julia, Maddy, Annika, Cassandra. Then my own body seizes and tumbles to the floor. I am consumed by fever and shaking. I sink into darkness.
I’m in a place I don’t understand. It’s as if I’ve drowned; I’m underwater, and there’s a heaviness inside me where my breath should be, but I’m conscious enough to see. The girls’ lifeless bodies drift around me, submerged in the brackish deep. Their eyes are dead. Bits of seaweed cling to their clothing, which has begun to rot from their bodies. The youngest floats toward me, carried by a current. She is pale, grotesque; her eyes flicker open, and her mouth moves. Inside my head, her small voice: the lighthouse.
I’m back in my body, on the floor in the attic. I bolt upright, gasping for air. The girls around me still convulse, still trapped in the murk. I open the hatch and let myself down, feeling my way in a house consumed by shadows. I light an oil lamp in the kitchen, and head toward the bookshelf, pulling out a battered, moldering book: A Primer on Morse Code.
I tuck it under my arm and hold the lantern, illuminating my way out of the cottage and toward the lighthouse. A gale blows out my lamp, and I fumble forward. Ocean spray stings my skin. The grasses and daisies roil and wave, flowers glow eerie in the dark. The lighthouse towers before me out of the rock, careening toward sky. I batter the door with the side of my body, heaving it open, tumbling inside. Odors catch in my throat: rot, salt, and damp. My head tilts, straining up; the spiral staircase soars above. Vertigo overwhelms; nausea rises in my gut. I close my eyes for a moment, gathering strength, then I crawl the staircase, ascending on my knees. I never once look down.
At the top, in the lantern room, the beacon is coated in cobwebs. It hasn’t been lit in years, maybe a century.
I lay the book open, flitting pages forward and back, memorizing sequences of dashes and dots.
I close my eyes, focusing my desperation and rage. Upon opening them, the beacon roars bright, pulsing a gargantuan beam across the ocean. I control it with my mind, spelling out S-O-S, and all our names in code, flinging letters into the dark.
At daybreak, I’m roused by the drone of motors. On my back, still in the lantern room, the sun hits my face after being magnified through the glass; the heat sears my eyes. I limp to stand, shielding my face as I squint. Stumbling toward the window, I see them: a vast ocean of small craft approach the island, boats helmed by men.
G.G. Silverman writes speculative fiction from the Pacific Northwest, where there’s a lighthouse holding ashes of the dead. Her work was most recently nominated for the Best Small Fictions anthology, and has appeared in or is forthcoming from StrangeHouse Press, Speculative City, Corvid Queen, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Iron Horse Literary Review, Molotov Cocktail, and more. To learn more visit www.ggsilverman.com.