There was a small town located by the sea in the old Soviet Union. It was a place of no particular importance. It was a small place and far out of the way, easily forgotten by the leaders in Moscow. It boasted nothing of great interest, and the people living there liked it that way. The only thing of note was the old lighthouse on the coast. Every day was the same. Mundane. Normal. They liked it that way with no one bothering them or getting into their business.
And yet, beneath the still mirror-like surface the town cultivated, there existed a whisper, a rumor, about the lighthouse at the shore's edge.
They say a man who didn't exist lived there, sleeping in the dark, dreaming of the light. Sometimes you could hear his voice. It's the groaning of the dock beneath your feet, the breaking of waves across worn stone, and the whispering shift of the sand. You can see his face there too in the emptiness between the stars, the flotsam that washes ashore, and sea (always, always the sea).
But that was just a story.
When Jack Morrison arrived in the sleepy seaside town, nearly every tongue wagged. Change was unusual, so a newcomer was easily the talk of the town. The townspeople spoke in hushed voices behind their hands. They whispered of his too stiff posture, and unsmiling face. They tutted over the scars that sliced over his face, and the wolf-lean cut to his cheeks. His hands were calloused, not with work from a farm or a boat, but from handling weapons. A hard man, they murmured to themselves. A dangerous man.
(Perhaps, a few muttered, a man capable of taking on the sea. Those voices were quickly silenced, faster than any other.)
Jack tried not to let the whispering bother him. Objectively, he could understand it, coming from a tiny farming village himself. In small, tight-knit communities like these everyone knew everyone else. Strangers were curious oddities, and were choice subjects of gossip.
But even so, those watchful eyes prickled across his skin, and the low voices grated on his ears. He hated the attention. He gritted his teeth and swore to ignore them as he knocked on the door to a dingy building. The door opened a crack, a single eye staring out at him.
“I'm here for the lighthouse keys,” he grunted. The door opened a fraction wider, but revealed nothing more of the person on the other side.
“Spetsnaz Morrison, I presume?”
“Just Morrison,” he replied uncomfortably, not wanting to think about his time in the military right now.
“Of course,” the other replied in a quiet voice. They studied Jack for a moment, deathly silent. Jack stood still under their gaze, his back ramrod straight, his expression unconcerned. Finally, a set of keys were pushed through the cracked door.
“It's good that there will finally be someone who can care for the lighthouse properly,” the towns-person commented faux casually as Jack tucked the keys away, “Though I feel as if I should tell you that they say the lighthouse is haunted.”
“Who is they?” he asked.
“No one of importance,” the other replied, waving off his concerns, “Just an old ghost story.”
Jack snorted, just barely resisting the urge to roll his eyes. Ghost stories were just that—stories.
“There are fishing nets and a rowboat at the lighthouse. Everything there, you can use,” the person behind the door continued, “You look like you could use the supplies. I doubt you have a single copeck to your name. Lucky for you, there are quite a few people that will trade for fish.”
Subconsciously, Jack placed a hand against his sternum, pressing a coin hidden under his shirt into his skin.
The lighthouse had seen better days. It was a sad looking gray structure made with cracked stone. Tiny windows dotted its side, and the light at the top was dark. Stretching in front of the lighthouse and into the sea was a skeletal dock, the wood aged and weathered. Most of the dock had rotted away, making it hazardous to walk on. A tiny rowboat was tied to the rickety wooden structure, the little vessel bobbing in the water.
Jack, having grown up in a landlocked farming community far away from the sea, had always had this grand vision of what a lighthouse should look like. In his head, a lighthouse was a tall gleaming beacon in the darkness. Seeing the shabby building in his care was a terrible disappointment.
Inside the lighthouse he found the promised nets, along with a simple harpoon. Jack hefted up the harpoon, testing its weight. It was well cared for, free of rust. The nets too were in good shape, woven with strong rope and free of tears. He set both the nets and the harpoon near the door, and went deeper into the lighthouse.
The lighthouse was smaller on the inside than he expected. There was a kitchen and a bedroom, along with the lantern room on the top. Jack evaluated the lantern room first to see what exactly he was dealing with. From up here, the view of the sea was amazing, but Jack paid it no mind. He was only interested in the task at hand, and went straight to inspecting the equipment without looking at the beautiful view. Like the fishing gear, the beacon appeared to be in working order. There was nothing he needed to do for it, other than the usual upkeep and cleaning.
Jack grimaced. It appeared that rather than some strange ghost, boredom would be the enemy. For a moment, the part of his heart that still longed for adventure wondered angrily why he was here living out this sort of life. There was nothing here for him, nothing but a slow decay in silence and solitude.
But then he pressed the token he wore around his neck and remembered the truth.
Jack wore a coin on a length of twine around his neck. The coin (a copeck) was an oddity. Or more accurately, it was a fake. It proudly displayed a 76 on its reverse side instead of a real denomination making it worse than useless. Despite that, it had been a gift from a long dead friend, and that made the coin the only thing Jack had left of value in his possession.
As he readied himself for bed, he slipped the copeck off his neck and rubbed it between his fingers, feeling the familiar bumps and grooves. Then he laid it reverently on bedside table, before climbing into bed. He closed his eyes and hoped for a dreamless sleep.
He's laying in the cold wet snow, staring down the scope of his gun. Everything is quiet. Even the beat of his heart is slow and steady, each pump of blood spaced out with a gap of silence. Thump...thump. He's alone. And the press of that loneliness is heavy, lying across his back, threatening to break his spine. The pressure is immense, as if it's forcing him to become part of the landscape. If he's not careful, he will merge with ice and rock and nothingness.
And then, just for a moment, there's something else in this empty place. Someone else. It's jarring, that bright burst of breath, life, and heat. It doesn't belong here. And so, he squeezes the trigger. The roar of the gun sounds for just a moment, and there is a dull thump of a heavy body hitting the snowy ground, before silence sweeps in again.
Woodenly, he stands up, his body disjointed from his mind. He should leave. He gave away his position. He needs to report in. There's protocol for this. He knows what to do. Instead, he walks over to his kill in a haze, leaving heavy footprints behind him.
He had created a splash of color in an empty canvas of snow and ice. Red spills across the snowy landscape like madly blooming flowers. Roses in winter. A corpse lies in the middle of the mess, sleeping with eyes wide open.
Jack knows that face. He knows it, like he knows the taste of tobacco in his lungs and blood on his lips. A name is on the tip of his tongue, but his mind refuses. No no no. Never!
But he knows, he knows—ash in his lungs and pain in his mouth. His heart (his greedy, selfish heart) constricts as his trembling hands reach out. His head is full of static, screeching white noise that barely covers up the accusations roaring through his brain.
You did this. You. It was you. Monster. Murderer. You did this. You did this. You you youyouyou—did this!
And then, from outside of the world, a dark purring voice pierced into his mind, like a cruel hook in a fish's gills.
“There you are...”
Jack woke with a gasp, sweat pouring from his brow and his heart thundering in his ribs. It was still dark outside, a pitch blackness that spoke of the lateness of the hour. Subconsciously, his hand groped at his bedside table, searching. He grabbed his copeck before his cigarettes, the metal cool against his skin. He rolled the coin between his fingers, the motions practiced and thoughtless.
The details of the dream were already starting the blur, but the feelings remained. The hollowness. The horror. The hated guilt.
This was familiar, unlike the lighthouse, unlike the sea, unlike the townspeople. That black mood was the millstone around his neck that threatened to drag him down to the depths into damnation. The self-hatred and shame haunted him far more thoroughly than any made up ghost.
He had no idea how long he sat in bed, flipping the copeck over and over into the air. Eventually the edge of the coin began to give off a bright glint as light began streaming through the tiny window. Jack blinked down at it, almost surprised at the shine. Dawn again. He let the coin rest in the palm of his hand, its unusual seventy-six marking staring up at him. Mocking him.
“What am I doing?” he asked himself, as he pressed his hand (coin and all) against his forehead.
None of his ghosts answered.
(In the dark corners of the lighthouse bedroom, curls of dark water twisted and churned like living things. They had no eyes, but they stared at the old soldier nevertheless, shaking and quivering as they drank in dark dreams and false memories.
There, there! Deep and sweet, bitter and so full of pain. Aaaah so close, so close...but patience. Patience.
The brackish water coiled up on itself, then collapsed, seeping into the cracks and disappearing.
Jack never noticed.)