With the sun setting over the crown of the lighthouse, Jeffrey knew that this would be the last run across Chesapeake Bay. It would be a quick trip, too, since today being a Monday there would not be much boat traffic out on the water. As a matter of fact, Jeffrey had not seen another boat for quite some time.
Probably the Halloween curse, he thought. The curse, a legend really, kept many a boater off the water each October 31st. He would have rather been at home himself, except he had to pick up the crew working on the dredging barge. Jeffrey had a nice contract: take the crew out in the morning, deliver hot food from the Kiptopeke Diner at 1:00 pm and then retrieve the crew at dusk, usually around 6:00 pm. Easy money for a waterman. And welcome money, too, since the oysters had too many pollutants to make it safe to harvest…or too many state regulations that prohibited it. The blue crab season? That was worse.
Jeffrey’s wife had asked him to find a substitute skipper for the last run of the day, but there were none available. Little wonder since most of the local wives insisted their husbands stay home once the sun started making its way down to meet the horizon on Halloween. They knew the trouble always began once the abandoned lighthouse on Fisherman Island created a unique, obelisk-like eclipse of the setting orb. Jeffrey knew it also, and looking north, saw the lighthouse start to pierce the skin of the glowing, orange sun. But the crew needed to come home, their families were waiting. Jeffrey had to make the trip.
Each year, on Halloween, or so the story went, the ghost of last lighthouse keeper descended from his perch overlooking the Bay’s entrance to row out to meet one unsuspecting boat, asking the sailors for a few coins, a donation if you will, for his service. Those that did not contribute met horrible fates. The story was so pervasive that accidents on the water from here to Maryland were often attributed to the malevolent spirit.
A fanciful story perhaps, often told with drunken verve in pubs along the coast, but Jeffrey knew the facts. In 1885, a lighthouse keeper did indeed lose his life here. He had lost his job when a newer, more modern lighthouse, one that used electricity, came into service up the coast. Unemployed and unable to afford food to eat, the man died of starvation, all the while standing at his post. He had felt it his duty to keep the oil lamps burning, watching over the ships at sea until he could stand no more. His last log entry was dated October 31st.
There had been plenty of fishermen who claimed to have met the ghost so those that dared to set out on Halloween always kept a dollar or two, jingling in their pocket. Jeffrey was no exception, himself having five or six coins in the right pocket of his trousers.
To lend validity to the tale, there were a few examples of those who had (supposedly) not heeded the lighthouse keeper’s request. One boat was found capsized, on a sand bar of all places. The bow had been sunk into the sand, the stern facing skyward as if the boat had been dropped from the heavens. Another boat mysteriously caught fire and sank. Authorities were set to blame the engine for that one, until they found out it was a sailboat. In all cases, the sailors died in horrible, grotesque fashions.
Jeffrey didn’t want to believe all the poppycock, or at least that is what he kept telling himself as he set course for Thimble Shoal, where the dredging crews worked year round. His confidence started to wane, though, when he launched his boat, Velma’s Hideout (named after his favorite grandmother, the one who owned a speakeasy in Minnesota, years ago during the era of Prohibition,) and noticed the sea had taken on an eerie appearance. “Could the curse be true?” he wondered out loud. Without realizing it, he started to jingle the coins in his pocket.
There were gentle swells as far as a skipper could see, certainly no white caps. Nothing to worry about when you are in a 32 footer, Jeffrey thought. Yet the sea foam had an unusual greenish blue color to it, and the seagulls and pelicans were nowhere to be seen. He started to smell rotting kelp that had been ripped from the sea floor by vicious currents, now decomposing in the salt water and floating in with the tide. The whole scene reminded Jeffrey of the water’s condition right before a tropical storm. Then, for a brief moment, he thought he heard the telltale sounds of oars churning the water! His heart now starting to race, Jeffrey reached back into his pocket…
Fortunately, the barge was now dead ahead. The sun had already set, but Velma’s Hideout would be there in about five minutes. It would take another ten for the crew to shut down operations and board his vessel. 45 minutes later, they would all be home, ready to watch the kids dress up as witches and goblins, then go house to house gathering enough candy to make a dentist’s accountant smile. Jeffrey stopped jingling the coins. He couldn’t wait to get home and prove his wife wrong, one more time.
Jeffrey eased up on the throttle, drifting the last few feet before siding up to the barge. With one swift motion, he threw his mooring line over a cleat to secure the boat.
That’s when he noticed there were no souls on board…
(A special thanks to author/blogger Melissa, who pens The Undeveloped Story, for sponsoring the 2011 Spooktacular Halloween Short Story Blogfest! Check her blog out for more stories!)