I walked across the shore, gazing at the ancient, towering building that stood atop the cliff, reminiscing. It hadn’t been so long ago that it had given off the beautiful guiding light that so many ships had sought. This town had once been a bustling port, but I sighed as I gazed behind me and saw the dusty, abandoned buildings. I had been a child at the time; perhaps I only escaped because I was. No, that was absolutely certain. Had I been any older, I would have ended up like the rest of the crew members. All 16 of them had shared a similar fate. I closed my eyes and remembered the events that had led to today.
It was a cold, stormy night in the winter, and father was busy shouting orders about. I giggled, running around the lighthouse and harassing my father’s men. They glared at me and swatted at me as though I were a fly, but their actions were merely amusing. I ran up to the large window where the light shone out and gazed out onto the ocean, ignoring my father’s shout of exasperation. The light hit the waves, revealing the jagged rocks that lurked beneath, coating the waves in a luminescent air. I squinted, hoping to see further into the distance. My father had given up trying to pry me away from the window and continued running his crew, complaining about the shortage of oil. I gazed. There was something coming, a strange rowboat of sorts.
“Daddy,” I cried, “There’s a rowboat down there!”
He rushed to the window and gazed as well. It was indeed a rowboat, torn and fragmented with age and wear. Within it was a shadowy, cloaked figure, holding a strange box of some sort. He turned the light to make it shine directly on the boat. The figure gazed up in surprise.
“DO YOU NEED HELP?” shouted my dad at the top of his lungs.
The figure nodded, and the crew was quickly mobilized. I followed the men down to the shore watched their action with excitement as they towed the battered rowboat into the harbor. It looked tiny; it really did, as it slowly came forth, surrounded by other, more majestic ships. The figure was shivering, and a thin bony hand slowly found its way out of the cloak, pointing a finger in my direction.
“You…” it rasped. “You’re the one.”
My father cursed as the cloak suddenly collapsed.
“Are you alright?” he shouted, rushing forward into the rowboat.
He looked up in horror. Whatever had been inside the cloak had dissolved into a pile of sand and dust. He gazed at the strange box, and picked it up, bringing it back onto the shore. His crew members watched him with a look of both curiosity and horror, and regarded the box with suspicion and fear.
“What could this be?” he mumbled, gazing at the box.
The crew members crowded around him, equally curious. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I ran up to them as well.
He gulped, and opened the box gingerly. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, I shrieked in surprise as I gazed at my fingers. They were turning transparent! I was disappearing! I glanced around frantically at the older men, adults whom I regarded as pillars of safety. They, too, had panicked expressions as they looked at themselves slowly fading into thin air. It was the strangest sensation, really, something halfway between drifting off to sleep and being in a swimming pool. But before long, we had all vanished into thin air.
I opened my eyes –where was I? I looked around and found two members of my father’s crew with me. I remembered their names from hearing my father shouting, one was Mike, another Connor. They were still unconscious, and I decided I would take a look around the area.
I think we were in something like a forest, because there were trees that were not. They were staring at me, and murmuring amongst themselves.
“Is this the one?” rasped a young cedar.
“Looks young enough,” replied an oak. “Maybe, but who are the others?”
Branches rustled, and the trees appeared to bend over as though getting a better look at the crew members I was with.
“Oh dear, too old, they’ll fail for certain,” mused the cedar.
I stared at the trees in confusion.
“Who are you, where am I, and why can you talk?”
The oak chuckled.
“Too many questions, too little time. Avoid the illusions, leave these two. They'll only be a burden.”
The oak closed its eyes, apparently bored with the conversation, and became silent. I heard a soft “ouch” as Connor woke up. He saw Mike, and then saw me.
“Where are we..?” he mumbled.
I shrugged – hey, I knew no better than he. He gazed down at Mike and roughly kicked him awake. Mike sighed, slowly getting up as well.
“Are we in some fairytale or something? These woods are bizarre,” he commented.
The oak opened its eye and winked at me, and I waved back. Connor looked around as well.
“Wherever we are, let’s try to meet up with the others,” he murmured.
The two ushered me along, and we walked through the woods for a while. They looked terrified and worried, but to me, it was all perfectly relaxing. I wondered why they were so shocked. Suddenly, Connor literally jumped.
“Did you hear that, Mike!” he exclaimed.
Mike nodded, pale as a ghost.
“That terrible scream. It sounded like one of us.”
I frowned. I hadn’t heard anything vaguely resembling a scream or terror. But Mike and Connor had other plans, and the two rushed to check it out. With nothing better to do, I followed.
“Aiden!” cried Mike.
I sped up my pace, and found, to my surprise, Mike and Connor desperately shaking a strange grey tube of some sort. Aiden was another crew member – this clearly wasn’t him.
“Where’s Aiden?” I asked, confused.
“Aiden, hold on!” gasped Connor, still shaking the strange tube.
I watched, horrified, as the tube suddenly expanded, wrapping around them. There was a terrible squelching noise as it completely covered them, then deflated. A small puddle of red liquid came out of the top, and it let out a satisfied noise. I shook my head, turned, and ran away as fast as I could. The forest was no fairytale- it was a nightmare. A bored mushroom watched me as I passed.
“Hey, stop there.” It commanded.
Against my better judgment, I stopped, rooted to the spot from the shock of having a mushroom talk to me.
“I see you’re surprised,” it continued. “Did you by any chance see some large versions of yourself die or something?”
Bullseye. Even though they were not technically large versions of myself, I guess that’s what adults looked like to mushrooms. If mushrooms could see. Which they normally couldn't.
I nodded slowly. It regarded me lazily, and scoffed.
“Don’t be too surprised when that happens. Large ones don’t see things as they really are,” it sighed. “So easy to trick and manipulate.”
It then gazed at me, contemplating.
“This place is already lost. You’ll have to defeat the li’l midnight lady to escape.”
I wanted more answers, but the mushroom had, like the oak tree, become still. Nervously, I continued on through the forest, noticing the hungry glares of several tube-things fixed on me. I broke into a run, gazing down at the grass as I ran – somehow, the grass was slightly reddish as well. Not looking where I was going, I crashed into someone, falling on top of the person.
“Argh,” came a feminine voice, “Who’s this stupid boy?”
I looked up to see that I had crashed into a lady clad in white. She glared at me, but then her expression softened.
“Hmm, you could do,” she murmured to herself. "Young enough."
She extended a hand out to me, helping me get up.
“Help me get rid of the midnight lady?” she asked demandingly.
Unable to think of anything else, I slowly nodded.
“Do you have companions?” she continued.
“Uhm, 16 crew members,” I murmured.
“Humph,” she said. “Well, not much we can do for them. Just hope for the best, alright?”
I nodded nervously as she dragged me away, perhaps to confront the midnight lady. Although I wasn't sure who the midnight lady even was, I had a twisting feeling that she was the one behind most of the strange occurrences. We walked through the forest in a strange zigzag pattern, until suddenly; we were out in a clearing. I blinked in surprise as the strange violet light from a twisted moon hit my eyes. A soft hand suddenly covered my eyes as we walked past the strewn bodies of another 5 crew members; even without seeing them, I could smell their blood and the tobacco they had loved so much. The lady sighed.
“From what the forest tells me, they were George, Aiden, Mark, Brandon, and Tyson,” she murmured. “Killed by a brain-gorging spider they thought was the lighthouse.”
I shivered slightly. So they too, like Mike and Connor, had been tricked by some life-form they did not truly see.
“Why are they affected like this? Why don’t they see the truth?”
“The mind of an adult obscures the truth. They see what they want to,” she whispered. “So only a child can destroy the midnight lady.”
“How do I go about fighting her?” I asked. “I want to go home already!”
“Patience,” she murmured. “7 of your crewmates are dead, 9 remain… you should perhaps try to save them, it’s completely your choice.”
She led me to a tree that was a brilliant white. It stood out clearly against the dark and foreboding landscape. She tapped twice upon its bark, and its eyes opened.
“I see,” it murmured. “So this is the one.”
It lazily draped branches about me, and I became clad in an odd white armor. I gazed down, surprised. It finally placed one branch in my hands, and it snapped off, instantly become a white staff.
“Go on, then,” said the white lady impatiently. “Go and defeat her.”
Nodding, I left, unsure of where I was going. The staff, however, tugged me in a certain direction, and I followed, somewhat guilty about the 7 crew members (my father included) whom I had decided not to save. I felt some tears dripping down my cheeks as I realized how helpless I was and how ridiculous the whole situation was - trapped in a twisted forest with no adults to help me. I had always been able to get out of tricky situations by relying on them in the past, but there was no longer anyone who could save me. Where was daddy? Somewhere far away, probably dead. I walked past strange plants that transformed themselves into crude renditions of lighthouses and people, in an attempt to fool me, but I saw right through their feeble attempts. I didn’t know how the adults could possibly be fooled by them. The staff dragged me along, and I trudged through all sorts of terrain, from puddles to marshes. My feet eventually got tired, and I wanted no more, but the midnight lady had to be defeated if I were to ever return home and tell the story. Perhaps it was just all one big nightmare. Perhaps once she fell, everything would go back to normal and I'd be able to fool around in the lighthouse with daddy and his crew again. I felt a ray of hope hit me as I thought of the possibilities of what could happen once she had fallen.
Finally, in front of me was a gigantic black tree, towering far into the sky. Atop its branches sat a strange woman with a pale face and lips red as blood. Her midnight-black locks trailed all over the branches, and her black dress hugged her tightly. I noticed with horror 7 bodies nailed to the tree, each one of which I recognized.
“Daddy!” I cried, rushing up to my dad’s.
So he was... already dead! I tried my best to hold back the tears, but could not prevent a trickle from coming down. I hoped strongly that it was all a nightmare, that it would all go away- the midnight lady noticed me and smiled, pointing at it. Slowly, the corpses came to life, coming at me. I shook my head – something wasn’t right. The way they were moving was impossible, even for corpses. The joints were all the wrong way! I lifted up the white staff as though shielding myself, and the illusion was shattered. The midnight lady frowned as I saw the truth – puppets made of branches moving towards me.
“Oh, my, so you weren’t a big one,” she said, her voice seductive and drawn. “But I suppose you really can fight your father, if you want.”
She reached her hand into the tree somehow, and pulled out my unconscious father who was covered in some sort of tree-juice. He slowly opened his eyes, before seeing me. A mask of absolute fear warped his features, and he pulled out his pocketknife, pointing it straight at me.
“I’ve made him see you as a monster, you see,” explained the midnight lady. “Adults…are so easy to trick.”
“Where are the rest?” I asked, panicking yet hoping for the best.
“Well, 7 were eaten by beasts, and the remaining 9 were captured by me,” she replied. “They’re getting digested by this lovely creature here right now.”
She gently stroked the tree and smiled slightly down at me. I shuddered in terror.
“What will you do, child?” she asked, amused.
I glanced at my father carefully. Half his face had melted away, revealing the white of the skull beneath it. One eye was gone, and his arm was melting even as he approached me. He resembled a zombie, and his face was completely warped. I could hardly recognize him as the man who had raised me, and I realized then that he was no longer.
“T-this isn’t my father!” I screamed, whacking him hard on the head with the white staff.
He exploded into sand and dust, leaving behind a lonely pile that drifted away in the wind as I whimpered in fear. I then gazed at the midnight lady. She seemed mildly surprised and amused that I hadn’t yet died. Something was off about her perfection. I threw the staff at her, and she made no attempt to dodge it. It hit her across the face, hard, before bouncing back and coming back to me. Not even a single sign of my aggression marked her petite body. I thought about the illusions. Nobody else who had come here had seen things as they truly were; it was possible that I too had been fooled! I looked around, remembering stories I had heard of ghosts possessing objects in the past. There was nothing more suspicious than the large black tree she was sitting on! I then pointed the staff at the tree.
“This is your true body, isn’t it!” I shrieked.
Fear came across her pretty features for a moment, and I knew I was right. I threw the staff with all my might at the tree, and somehow, it penetrated right through. She shrieked, the sound worse than that of a banshee’s, and the midnight sky shattered, revealing the sun.
The white lady came up to me. My vision was blurring, and I knew I was falling unconscious.
“I shall send you home,” she murmured, touching me upon the forehead.
I woke up on the shore, with the corpses of the crew around me. Two were half digested; Mike and Connor. Five were torn to shreds, but the shreds had been clumsily pieced together by some force. And eight were half melted by the midnight tree. My father’s corpse was missing. I shuddered and sobbed as I realized that it hadn't only been a nightmare; it had all happened; it was irreversible.
The owners of the other ships eventually found me stunned amongst the corpses, and took me in. They were given proper burials, although I was treated as either a ghost or a monster. I never spoke up in my defense, the memory of my trauma fresh in my head. Eventually, all of the ship owners left, murmuring comments about demons and witchcraft. And the lighthouse, crew gone, never shone its light again. With them went the people who had relied on them for business, and the whole city soon became deserted. Occasionally, tourists who had heard rumors of the mysterious corpses would come for a glimpse of the fabled lighthouse.
I sighed, returning to the present. Those memories were always painful as they were the day they had been created. I wished once more to go back to those times before, when I was still a carefree boy playing in a lighthouse, then snapped back to reality. I gazed out at the sea, fondly remembering how it had once looked from the top. As always, I returned every year to pay homage to those lost in the realm of the midnight lady. I took a bouquet of cypress out, and tossed it into the waves, watching it drift away, before turning my back on the shore.