At precisely 3:31 every winter afternoon, the keeper awoke early to watch the sun set over the fading horizon of the Norwegian sea. It was a sight he had committed to routine, and a tradition he kept solely to himself. He cherished those few solitary moments as the last of the day’s light caressed the savage sea, and, finally, plunged the world into darkness.
So on that afternoon, the old man who ran the quarters of the lighthouse inn was perplexed to find the keeper out of bed - an hour too early for his post - on his way to the rocky shore.
“Hans,” the old man called out to him, and the keeper turned towards the name that wasn’t his. “Good afternoon. Couldn’t sleep?”
The keeper shook his head. “Heater’s broken again.” Truthfully, he paid no mind to the broken heater, reveling instead in the well-deserved frost of his basement room. But, to prove his point, he wrapped his arms around his torso, cloaked in three layers of clothing, and feigned a shiver.
The old man tsked, shaking his head. “I’ll get that fixed. My apologies.” He cleared his throat, stifled a quick glance to the lobby behind him and whispered, “We’ve got visitors.”
“Oh?” Visitors weren’t unheard of, but most tended to be scientists studying maelstroms or conspiracy theorists studying Poe - neither of which the old man was too fond of.
“Tourists,” he said. “British ones. They want a guided tour.” He hesitated. “Could you get them out before the sun sets?”
“Sure thing, boss.” It wasn’t the keeper’s job to give tours, though he’d given a few in the years he’d been here, but that was the way it worked with them. As long as he did what the old man wanted, the old man didn’t ask questions. Not about his past. Not about who he was. Not even about the drunken voices he’d hear floating out of his basement at early hours of the morning.
The keeper glanced one last time to the sun he would not see set, and made his way to the lobby of the inn, where a young couple stood bickering. The woman, a fetching brunette about his age, greeted him with a curious smile. The man, with his neatly coiffed hair and permanent scowl, was not nearly as pleasant.
“Hello,” the keeper said in broken English. “I am Hans. I give tour to you today What are your names?”
The young woman opened her mouth to respond. “Elijah Kingsley,” the man cut her off, moving to offer his hand and, with a disgusted look, thinking better of it. “And my fiancé, Olivia.”
“My fiancé seems to think I am incapable of independent thought,” Olivia said with a snide smile. Unlike her partner, she reached out her hand, delicate and pale like much of British aristocracy, to shake his. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hans.”
“I am simply being a gentleman, dear,” Elijah Kingsley chided.
“Pleasure to meet you,” the keeper said, ignoring the weighted glances between them. He gestured towards the door of the inn. “If you follow me kindly, I take you to maelstrom. Not strong this time of year, but I do my best to show you.”
The breeze blew through the lobby as the keeper opened the door and led them outside. It had been a milder winter this year, pleasant but for its usual dreariness, but today, the setting sun shone warmly through the clouds, its orange light reflecting off of the faintly falling snowflakes that covered the ground in an immaculate blanket of white. It was the kind of evening that made him wish he’d stayed sleeping.
“It’s bloody freezing,” Elijah Kingsley proclaimed, hands wrapped around his too thin jacket.
“It is the Arctic, Mr. Kingsley,” the keeper said.
Olivia smirked. “What else were you expecting, Elijah? Palm trees and topless women?”
“Palm trees and topless women,” Elijah muttered mockingly to himself as he stomped behind them, his boots carving craters in the unmarred snow. “I wanted the Caribbean, but nobody ever cares what Elijah wants. Oh, Elijah,” he feigned in a high pitch voice, “but isn’t it so much more interesting to see bloody, goddamn whirlpools? Yes, dear, why, of course it is. Of course, I’d rather freeze my arse off in the Arctic than get a tan in the Caribbean. Of course!”
Olivia, who was now walking beside the keeper, sighed. “I apologize for my fiancé. He hasn’t aged since primary school.”
“Does he want to stay at the hotel?” the keeper asked, sneaking a glance behind him at Elijah, who was kicking the snow around him and muttering profanities about polar bears.
“No,” Olivia said bluntly. “If we’re going to get married, he’d best develop interests other than poker games and playboy.”
The keeper nodded and refrained from saying anything else as he led them towards the snow-coated cliff overlooking the coast. It wasn’t too far from the inn, perhaps a half mile walk, but Elijah Kingsley complained the whole way there. Not that either of them paid him much attention.
On the other hand, Olivia gaped in awe, and indeed, the sight was deserving of it. The blue-black ocean before them shone bright, reflecting the orange and yellow hues of dusk. On the mainland, the lights of the cabin homes twinkled, and beside them, from where they had just come, the old lighthouse stood tall, stark white against the first signs of the northern lights. There was no other sight that compared. It made the keeper feel insurmountably guilty.
As they approached the edge of the cliff, the keeper held out a hand, signaling for them to stop, even though he surely wouldn’t mind if Elijah Kingsley, who had moved on to a diatribe about the perils of Eskimos, happened to lose his footing and fall into the sea below them. Immediately, he chided himself for the thought.
“The maelstrom,” the keeper said, gesturing to the vast open waters before them. “You call it whirlpool. They have long history in Norge. Many stories, real and fake, about the maelstrom. During winter, like this, it is no danger, but in summer, with hot air, you do not want to go to sea with it.”
“Excuse me, Hans, mate,” Elijah Kingsley said, narrowing his eyes towards the open sea, “but what in the bloody hell are you talking about?”
“Don’t be rude, Elijah,” Olivia said, her gaze shifting towards the keeper in apology. “Open your eyes and look.” She pointed to the spot in the ocean where a small whirlpool was spinning, barely large enough to pose a threat to a duck. Elijah, scoffing, opened his mouth to retort, but Olivia cut him off. “Have you ever experienced it, Mr. Hans?”
“Jøss, no. You would be very foolish to try.”
“Foolish my arse,” Elijah Kingsley muttered. “Thing couldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Come on, Liv,” he whined. “I think we’ve seen enough of this, haven’t we? Let’s go back to the hotel and cuddle.”
“Go cuddle your hand, you baffoon. I, for one, am very curious as to what you have to say, Mr. Hans. Please, go on.”
The keeper glanced at the couple, and, clearing his throat, continued. “The maelstrom can be danger to ships if they do not see it. They do not suck in, like in stories, but they cause damage to ship if slammed against rock. That is what I do.” He pointed to the lighthouse. “I warn ship captain that maelstrom is here and is strong, so they can avoid maelstrom and danger. But in winter, there is not much job for me. Maelstrom not strong, and too cold for ships.”
“So what do you do?” Olivia asked.
The keeper gave her a guilty smirk and a light hearted shrug. “I drink.”
Olivia laughed, the sound light and trill and musical, and the keeper couldn’t help it when something inside of him ignited. “If you want,” he said, knowing he’d regret it, “later in the night, I can show you view from lighthouse. Northern lights will be beautiful.”
“Oh, that sounds wonderful! Doesn’t that sound wonderful, Elijah?”
“I’ll take the drink,” Elijah muttered.
Olivia ignored him. “Thank you so very much, Mr. Hans.” She softly placed her palm against his arm, and he tried to hide the intake of breath he unconsciously took. “You’ve been so kind.”
“It is no problem,” the keeper said, shaking his head and letting his golden hair fall into his eyes. “There is not much more to tour because of snow and darkness. You can stay and watch sunset here, if you want. Hotel is down that way. It was pleasure to meet you.” He gave them a curt bow of his head, and, with no other goodbye, he headed down the cliff and towards the lighthouse inn.
Hours after he had watched the last of the fading sun dip below the horizon, the keeper sat in his station at the top of the lighthouse, a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a half torn photograph in the other. His own face stared back at him, 12 years younger and at the prime of his life, with a smile he hadn’t sported since he’d been here. A mane of auburn hair cascaded down his left shoulder, but her face had been cut out, the other half lost to their last fiery night. Deservedly so.
“It wasn’t your fault,” the voice, his nightly companion, spoke to him. He loved it when she came, when he could relish in that familiar red-brown hair, freckled nose, slightly uneven smile… but she only came when he was drunk, so he drank until he lost feeling.
“It was,” he responded, the same nightly banter as always. “It was.”
“Get over it,” she said. “Move on. You shouldn’t feel this way. It’s been too long.”
“It should have been me,” he whispered into his bottle.
“You’re pathetic,” she said. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, and smile for once.”
He said nothing because he couldn’t. He couldn’t describe what it felt like to feel nothing. Nothing. Empty, but for the all-consuming guilt and regret and sadness. Only the destructive warmth of whiskey and the painful frost of winter kept him going these days.
“Answer the door,” she said, but he hadn’t heard anything. Just the crashing of waves against the tower. “Answer the door,” she repeated, and then she was gone.
Hoisting himself up from his chair, he unlocked the floor door, which he’d taken to locking just in case the old man paid him a surprise visit and caught him drinking. It was his white bearded face he was expecting to see when he pulled the door open, not Olivia’s hesitant one, with one hand poised to knock and the other gripping the rail at her side.
The keeper blinked. “Hello.”
Olivia looked up at him, smiling tentatively. “Um, hello. I’m sorry if I’m bothering you, I just… Can I come in?”
The keeper stepped back immediately. “Yes. Please.”
She was silent as she stepped from the stairs to the upper platform of the tower, taking in the area around her. It was decently large for an old tower, covered entirely in windows and wood paneled floors. In the middle of the room stood the beacon, framed in rusted iron, and blinking ever so often into the night sky. The keeper’s chair, binoculars and bottle of whiskey lay beside it.
“I wanted to see the northern lights,” she explained. He blinked at her again. “Like you offered? Elijah couldn’t make it, but, I thought, why not?” She smiled at him, and he realized, through his shock, that he owed her an answer.
“Yes. Right.” He bent down to pick up his binoculars, handing them to her, their hands touching as he passed them. He swore her hands lingered momentarily on his before she took the binoculars and lifted them up to her face. “Most times you do not need glasses, but the sky has clouds today.”
“I can’t see them,” she said, squinting. “Can you point them out for me?”
He did just that, but she shook her head, so, counting his blessings, he lay one hand on her left shoulder and the other over her right hand. For a second, she stiffened, and then, relaxing, she let her body mold into his hands as he twisted her around to face the lights.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Magnificent.”
“Vakker,” she repeated, dropping the binoculars to look at him. “Is that…?”
They stared at each other for a second too long before he let her go. She bent down to pick up the whiskey, taking a swig of it and biting her lip as it burned her throat.
“Why are you with your lover?” the keeper asked, the alcohol opening the gates to thoughts he’d otherwise keep sober. “He is no good for you.”
She smiled sadly, taking another sip as she leaned against the windowed wall. “Yes, but I am no good for him either.”
“And you are together still?”
“I am not a good person, Mr. Hans.” She passed him the bottle. “I was not made to love. Elijah wants my title and my body. I want his fortune and his security. Nobody tries to court a married woman. Not for anything other than sex, which,” she bit her lip again, “I am usually happy to oblige.”
The keeper’s eyes went wide as Olivia shrugged off her winter coat and slowly undid the top few buttons of her blouse. She walked over to him, taking her sweet time with each languid step. “The thing is, Mr. Hans, I have a very difficult time keeping my hands to myself. It’s why I chose to come here, in the middle of bloody nowhere, so I would be forced to devote myself solely to my bastard of a fiancé. But there you were, six feet of blonde Norwegian man, and I couldn’t help myself. To be frank, I wasn’t sure if you were interested or if you were just being accommodating by inviting me here.” She was pressed up against his chest now. “But then you touched me, and I knew.”
“Ms. Olivia,” he said. “I do not know what you want me to do.”
She twirled her fingers in his hair and pulled him close, her voice an urgent whisper against his lips. “Just take off your clothes, Hans.” He couldn’t tell if it was the alcohol or the memory of what his companion had said, but that voice, so impossibly familiar, finally got him to do what, for a decade, he believed he would never do again.
He lay with another woman.
“So what’s your story?”
They were both nude, sprawled on the cold wooden floor of the lighthouse, huddled together to keep warm. Her brown eyes watched him intently, analyzing him, and though he felt such a gaze would make anybody uncomfortable, he cherished the care behind it. And so, though he’d long promised not to share the accidental tragedy of those wild flames with anyone, he told her.
Olivia stared at him as he finished, lips pursed, breasts perked. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. “It is not your fault.”
“It’s not yours either.” They stared at each other in silence, and Olivia reached forward to push a strand of hair from his face. “We’re all a little screwed up,” she said, “and that’s ok.”
He turned his head away from her, letting his mind drift off as he stared up into the night sky. “But I am not ok.”
She shrugged. “Neither am I.”
At that, she curled into his body and fell asleep.
He woke up three hours later. Olivia was gone, the only trace that she had ever been there was the lingering scent of her coconut shampoo on his chest. His shift was almost over, judging from the way the light of the rising sun was beginning to caress the horizon. His head pounded from the whiskey, and all he really wanted was to go back to sleep.
Switching off the beacon and raising the last flag of the day, he made his way down the lighthouse, and into the inn. The old man sat at the front desk, his gray eyebrow cocked at him.
“Hello, Hans,” he said. “Long night?”
The keeper nodded. “I’m going to get some sleep, if that’s ok with you.”
“Of course. Go ahead.” The old man waved him away, and he gave him a curt goodbye. “Oh, Hans!” the old man cried, and the keeper turned to him. “I almost forgot. The young British woman left this for you.” He waved an envelope at him. “I assume that means you gave a good tour?”
If only he knew. “I did what I could.”
The old man smiled. “Glad to hear it.” He shoved the envelope into the keeper’s hand before returning to his papers.
As the keeper lay in his basement bed, he opened the envelope. Inside, there was only a note, written illegibly on a post-it sticker.
It’s ok to not be ok.
He did not wake early.