When they reopened the island, most people didn’t come back. Hard to blame them. Everything along the shore was gone, the mansions, the high-rise condos, the retirement homes. The storefronts weren’t spared either, and it’s not like we were getting tourists back anytime soon. Enough time had passed that most people, the ones that got out, had settled elsewhere. But me? I was on the first boat back.
We took a boat because the causeway wasn’t rebuilt yet. By “we,” I mean the true locals, the ones born on the island, the ones who can recite the history of the Beacon Pointe Light like we’re reading it off the goddamn plaque.
It was built in 1891, by the way, made out of iron with a winding, hundred-foot staircase in the middle. When the sun sets, its light can be seen across the island, turning like clockwork, the soft whoosh lulling everyone to sleep. That was before the storm. Now, it’s caked with sticky mud and algae, a sea-born scarecrow, warding off visitors.
I remember stepping off the boat, the straps of my backpack digging into my shoulders. The dock was brand new, higher than the one before, spared from the elements. Not so much for the mainland.
The smell hit us first, a rotten haze between stacks of twisted metal and crooked palms. The sky was gray, humid, sucking up the heat and wringing it over us like a wet towel. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen the sun since I’ve been back, like it got swept away with everything else.
I decided to walk, stretch my legs, free up a seat on the bus for one of the older folks. It was dark by the time I made it home, dodging puddles and branches along the way. My place was in decent shape, still had some roof left. The inside was a graveyard of debris, with traces of water up to the ceiling. Not too bad, all things considered.
Later that night, I saw my first ghost.
I was on the recliner, still damp in spots, sipping a flat beer, staring at the blown-out TV, imagining a baseball game. It was the top of the ninth, no, the bottom of the ninth. Two outs, two runners on, home team down by three. Up comes the cleanup hitter, the big guy, ready to send the game to extras. Free baseball. Doesn’t get any better than that.
Something caught my ear. The sound of footsteps, wet and slow, trudging through the backyard. I downed my beer, tossed the can into one of the junk piles, and made my way towards the kitchen.
The lights flickered, got dimmer, getting used to electricity again. On the patio door, a black shape emerged. A shadow, rocking back and forth with the wind.
“Hello?” I broached a timid step towards the door. “Who’s out there?”
“I can see you,” I said, like it mattered. “Mardi, is that you?” I hadn’t seen Mardi on the boat, or anyone else from my block, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Still no answer. I swallowed a lump in my throat and cracked the door.
An old lady stood on trembling knees, hands locked on her elbows, her head down.
“Ma’am?” I opened it the rest of the way. “Is everything alright?”
Water was everywhere, pooling at her feet, dripping from her forehead, her shoulders, her wrists, draining the color from her hair and skin. She looked up, jaw clenched, eyes shut. Her nostrils flared in and out, in and out, every breath a struggle.
“Hang tight,” I said. “Let me get you something.” I tore through every room, a stranger in my own house, until I found a stack of towels.
When I got back to the door, the old lady was gone. I searched the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, but I couldn’t find her. I circled the house again, stumbling over debris, crushing beer cans under my boots, banging into sharp corners. No sign of her anywhere.
“Ma’am?” I retraced my steps. “Where’d you go?”
Footsteps again, in the backyard. I went outside, the towel slung around my neck. No moon, no stars, no light. I stuck my arms out, let my eyes adjust, crept forward.
I found her by the fence, standing on the fallen pickets, her back to me.
“Here you are.” I draped the towel across her shoulders. It fell to the ground.
The old lady turned. She opened her eyes, opened her mouth, everything glowing white. I shielded my face. A scream rang out, echoed across the yard. Then another. And another.
She wasn’t alone. There were more shadows, more people, drenched from head to toe, a maze of blinding white faces. I stumbled around them, through them, bracing myself for impact but feeling nothing.
I managed to get back inside, tried to lock the door behind me, but the bolt wouldn’t stick. Rusted over. I crawled to the corner, wound up in the fetal position. I might’ve cried, who’s to say.
Next thing I knew, I woke up on the kitchen floor. Daybreak spilled through the windows. The screams were gone. When I built up the courage to check the backyard, the people were gone, too. That’s what I called them at first. People. It made me feel better. But deep down, I knew what they were. And it wouldn’t be long before I saw them again.
Not the same ones. Well, sometimes the same ones. I’ve seen that old lady a few times. Never in my backyard again, but once across the street, staring at a fallen power line, and another time at Deb’s hardware store, wandering through the aisles.
There must be hundreds of them, the ghosts of the island. Some of them I recognize, like Chipper, who used to build benches on his front lawn and yell at people who didn’t stop at the intersection. He still stands in front of his house every morning, what’s left of it anyway, but there aren’t any benches and he doesn’t yell. He just points, opens his mouth, stretching the limits of his face, glowing white.
The worst sighting I had was by the shore, sitting on one of the benches near the dock, waiting for the next boat to come in. I’d just gotten a coffee from the diner, the morning it opened back up.
I wasn’t through my first sip when a little girl ran by, dragging a kite across the fractured concrete. I got up to help, I used to love flying kites, until I saw the trail of water behind her.
She followed me home that day. I wouldn’t turn around, I didn’t want to see her face, pale and innocent, with those horrible glowing eyes. I didn’t go outside for a while after that.
We can all see them, the people who came back. Some of the locals wear silver now, necklaces, rings, belt buckles, whatever they can find. Crazy Larry spread a rumor that silver keeps the ghosts away, but I don’t mind them. They’re not doing anyone any harm. They’re lost, confused, scared, not much different from the rest of us.
Every sunset, the ghosts gather along the shore. At first it was just a few of them, wandering into the gulf until their knees touched the water, shivering, always shivering. Now, it’s all of them, their own little ritual. They wade into the water until the sun goes down, then they disappear into the night. Half the island still doesn’t have electricity, so who knows where they go.
But me? I go back to my house, crack open a beer, and settle in for another baseball game. My team is undefeated this season. I’m feeling really good about the playoffs.
Sometimes, I wonder if I’m a ghost, too. I see the same people, do the same things, day in and day out. No one else has come back. No one comes to visit. The charities are gone, the food banks are gone, the government tents are gone. The relief checks will stop soon. We’re on our own now. It’s kind of like that old saying about a tree falling in the forest. If you rebuild a town, but nobody’s there to see it, did it really happen?
I think about these things as I sit on my recliner, waiting for another ghost to pay me a visit. Sometimes, I end up at my bedroom window, staring out at the Beacon Pointe Light, its shadow lingering under a dim night sky.
I wait for the light to turn on, for the whoosh to come back, for the heart of the island to beat again. It hasn’t happened yet. It may never happen. We’ll be here if it does.
Kevin DG Johnson is a product manager by day and writer of creepy tales by night. His previous work has appeared in several online publications, most recently The Chamber and Elegant Literature. He can be found on Twitter @KevinDGJohnson.