“Red skies at night, sailor’s delight . . .” The nautical lyric rose on a wave of enthusiasm and spilled into a long contented sigh. Lee Garnett lounged against the side of his camper, the steaming cup of coffee in his hand forgotten as he gazed in awe at the sunset. From the land, the old red brick lighthouse was a stark silhouette against a crimson streaked sky. From the sea, its brilliant lamp was both a directional beacon and a warning of the jagged rocks below the cliff.
Los Angeles lay far to the south, yet only an unpleasant memory away. Its homeless would never know the solitude of such a night, and the rich would consider this land forsaken. Three miles to the southeast lay a small town, its occupants mostly fishermen who lived a simple life and wanted nothing to do with strangers. The closest neighbor lived a mile up the sandy road in a run-down motor home. Caldwell was a grizzled old man who wasn't fond of visitors . . . two or four-legged, and he had a rusty old pellet gun that backed up his claim to the scraggly lot he called home. Lately he'd been complaining about a dog that had been raiding his garbage can.
"Well dog," Garnett's said under his breath, "You can have all my scraps." The words were chased into the cool October night by a ghostly fog. He took a sip of the coffee and made a face. It was getting as cold as the night. He pushed away from the camper and opened the door.
Something rustled in the brush behind him, and he turned. The light from the doorway cast eerie shadows in the brush and the night became unnaturally quiet. Was the dog out there? If it wanted food or companionship, why did it lurk in the darkness?
He stepped into the trailer and closed the door, locking it behind him. Come morning, he'd get started on the framework for his cabin. The concrete had been poured two weeks ago and the lumber had been delivered today. The camper shell didn't offer much in the way of protection from man or nature.
People had thought him crazy when he quit his job and sold everything except his truck and camper. He was a 35-year-old bachelor with few responsibilities, and the interest off his stock investments provided a modest income. He had a roof over his head and food in his stomach, what more did a person need?
Garnett woke in the night with a start. He cocked his head and listened, unsure of what had awakened him. He rubbed his eyes and pulled back the curtain. The lighthouse was nothing more than a bright light in the inky darkness of pre-dawn. He shrugged and started to drop the curtain, but something caught his attention. A shadow moved quickly across the light. He stared at the light until his eyes watered, but nothing moved. Had it been his imagination? He dropped the curtain and fell back to his pillow. Probably an optical illusion . . .or maybe the light had burned out and someone had changed it. Maybe that was what had wakened him.
He tossed and turned for another hour and then gave up the idea of sleeping. He fixed some bacon and eggs and dug into the loaf of bread, avoiding the heel. Again he lifted the curtain. The mechanical eye had extinguished the lighthouse globe, and the brush was beginning to take shape around the camper. A rabbit nibbled at some grass while a yellow billed Magpie watched from a limb on a hazelnut tree.
The rabbit lifted its head quickly and stared nervously in the direction of the lighthouse. The rabbit thumped and leaped into the brush, startling the Magpie, which screamed and beat its wings into a frenzied flight. Garnett watched the brush to see if the dog was there, but saw no movement.
By the time the sun was up a few hours, Garnett had two walls built and anchored at the corner. He was stooped over driving a nail when the brush rustled behind him. He stood and turned in one swift movement, but the brush revealed nothing. He sucked in a slow breath. The caution of city life hadn’t been forced out of him yet. Maybe the dog had been lured by the smell of bacon. It was probably hungry.
He walked back to the camper and downed the last piece of peach pie. Using the pie tin for a bowl, he tossed a couple of bread heels in and poured some bacon grease over it. He grinned as he headed for the brush. That old dog wouldn’t care anything about store-bought peach pie, but he’d sure go for the bacon grease and bread.
He placed the pan of food near where the brush had rustled and searched in vain for dog tracks. The only thing he found was the imprint of a shoe heel. It could have been a month old, but it left him with an uneasy feeling.
He returned to his work on the cabin and after a few minutes, the brush moved near where he had left the pan. He smiled and spoke softly. "Nothing like food in the old belly to warm a friendship." Before long he’d have a companion. Not that he needed one, but a dog wasn't much responsibility.
Days passed and the bowl was always empty when Garnett retrieved it, yet not once did he get so much as a gimps of the dog. Garnett had patience, but he was beginning to get an eerie feeling. Several times he had seen shadows in the lighthouse. Once he had gone to investigate, but he had found nothing. It had to be something about the atmosphere. Maybe the shadow wasn’t actually in the lighthouse. One evening as he sat outside his camper, the shadow appeared again. This time it wasn’t something indistinct. It was clearly outlined - a person. He leaned forward and stared at it. The person seemed to be looking his way. As suddenly as it had appeared, the shadow disappeared. Garnett rubbed his eyes. Had he fallen asleep? Had he been dreaming? No, he was awake, and his heart was pounding. Who was in the lighthouse? He grabbed a crowbar and set out on the path to the lighthouse. It would be prudent to call the police. The trespasser could be a fugitive from the law. But he didn't have a telephone, and why would a fugitive spend so much time in one spot? Surely a fugitive would be careful enough not to outline himself against the light. The heavy wooden door squealed on its hinges, warning anyone inside of his arrival. Garnett stepped quickly inside the door and waited. Light filtered down from above into an empty circular room. An iron staircase spiraled up the inside of the lighthouse - void of life. The hair stood up on the back of his neck and he tried to banish the notion of ghosts.
Slowly he climbed the stairs until he reached the brilliantly lit landing. No one was there. He carefully descended the stairs and left the lighthouse. For a moment he stood outside the door, listening to the stillness of the night. Minutes ticked by before he moved, and immediately something scraped on the ground behind him. The dog?
He tried in vain to whistle through dry lips. “Here boy,” he finally called in a low voice. Maybe the dog belonged to the person he’d seen in the lighthouse. Hadn’t they both appeared about the same time?
Either the dog was wild or it wasn't a dog at all. He hurried back to his camper, again locking the door behind him. Something was out there, maybe snooping around his camper at night. Was that what had awakened him so many times?
The next morning he didn’t feed the dog. If it belonged to someone else, he didn’t want to lure it away. Low clouds hung in the sky, and the wind held a promise of rain. He pulled out the awning and secured it. If it rained, he could sit in his chair outside the camper and relax. At least the day wouldn't be a total loss.
As he locked in the last support, he glanced down. Clearly outlined in the dirt was a shoe print. He knelt and studied the print. The front of the print gave way to four toe prints. A ludicrous thought crossed his mind . . . werewolf. He pushed the thought from his mind and set out to work on the cabin. For several hours he worked, all the while feeling like someone, or something, was watching him . . . probably the dog.
When the rain started, it emptied from the skies as if someone had dumped a bucket of water. Garnett dashed for the camper, drenched before he could reach the shelter of the awning. He threw the door open and scrambled inside. There he came to a sliding halt on the wet floor.
Not completely hidden under the bed, a battered shoe sole sprouted four grimy toes. The camper smelled of sweat and mildew. Garnett glanced around, searching for something to use as a weapon. He finally grabbed the iron skillet and held it ready.
"Come on out of there," he ordered sharply, hoping his voice revealed no fear.
For the duration of a dozen or so wild heartbeats, the interloper hesitated, but finally the body squirmed out from under the bed. First a pair of ragged loose jeans, and then a tattered and faded blue flannel shirt. Finally the head emerged, with one arm held up to protect the face. Two large blue eyes peered at him from the ashen face of a boy who couldn't have been more than fifteen.
"What are you doing in here?" Garnett demanded. He had an uneasy feeling he knew the answer, but it couldn't be. Not out here in the middle of nowhere.
The boy began to shiver with cold, or fear - or maybe both, it was hard to say. Garnett set the skillet on the stove and opened a cabinet door, grabbing a towel and tossing it to the boy. “Dry off as best you can. Get out of those wet clothes and I’ll find something dry for you to wear.”
The boy peeled off his threadbare shirt, exposing a skeletal chest. Garnett dug a shirt and some jeans out of a drawer. “Here,” he said, shoving the clothes at the boy and reaching for a belt. “When was the last time you had something to eat?” With a stab of guilt, Garnet knew the answer: the last time he had filled the dirty pie tin with scraps. The thought was nauseating. “Where are your parents,” he asked gruffly. “The police are probably looking for you.” Garnett hadn’t thought it possible, but the boy’s eyes grew larger and his face paler. “I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!” "Nothing?" Garnett said as he pulled a frying pan from the cabinet. “You were trespassing in the lighthouse, and you broke into my camper.” “I didn’t break into your camper," the boy said. "The door wasn’t locked. I was jist looking for a place to git out of the rain.” He eyed Garnett hopefully. "Anyways, you fed me." The mental picture filled Garnett with shame. "I thought you were a dog," he growled as he reached into the refrigerator for some eggs. The boy stared at him, his expression unreadable. When he spoke, his voice held a hint of hope. "Everybody knows that if you want a dog to stick around, you feed it."
Garnett's stomach lurched threateningly. He cracked an egg against the pan and dropped it into the bacon grease. He had no reason to feel ashamed. How could he have known it was a boy, and not a dog?
The boy's stoic expression gave way to fear. “Please don’t turn me in."
Garnett eyed the boy doubtfully. “Why not? Don’t you know there are people who will give you a warm place to live and food in your stomach?” The boy lifted his chin indignantly. “I won’t go back there.” Garnett shrugged and broke an egg into the pan. “I don’t know that you have any choice, son. Anyway, it’s got to be better than living like this.” The boy shook his head vigorously. “No. I’ll just run away again. They don't want me. They get paid to take care of me, that's all. At least this way I'm free." The eggs sizzled in the pan, but otherwise the camper was ominously silent. Garnett had seen many homeless people. They weren’t faceless to him, but he had always been able to detach himself from them. But not this time. This teen was a refugee from the human race, and for some reason he had turned to Garnett for help. Was it because he had been willing to feed a stray dog? The idea hit him suddenly with humbling force. He had encouraged the companionship of a dog, and yet he was ready to turn away a destitute child. A quote he had read somewhere came to mind. "The service we do for others is the room and board we pay for our place on this earth."
The boy was tired of taking scraps from the world. He needed to know that someone truly wanted him. He needed more than a warm place to stay and food in his stomach. He was willing to settle for what Garnett was willing to give a dog.
Garnett put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You’re not a dog to be sent back to the pound where you won’t be pestering people. I set out that food for what I thought was a stray dog. I set it out because I wanted companionship. I never dreamed it would fetch me a companion that could think and talk back. The boy stared up at him, hope shining in his eyes. Garnett had escaped the city, but he hadn’t escaped life. He couldn’t do anything about the multitude in the city, but he could do something about one person. He could do his part instead of running away. He glanced out the window. The lighthouse loomed solidly against the angry sky. Too bad more people didn’t see those shadows in the lighthouse.