Acceptance…connects the threads of the first two books, introduces a few of its own and takes us to a satisfying stopping point if not a complete conclusion…the real accomplishment of these books lies less in their well-designed plots than in VanderMeer's incredibly evocative, naturalist eye…At its best, VanderMeer's language is precise, metaphorical but rigorous, and as fertile as good loam. More than mere atmosphere, the rich natural details are the trilogy's most powerful techniqueand, in some ways, its point…With Area X, VanderMeer has created an immersive and wonderfully realized world; I wouldn't be surprised if he revisits it. If so, I'll happily sign up for the next expedition.
Meanwhile, Acceptance tunnels ever deeper into the circumstances surrounding the creation of Area Xwhat initiated this unnatural upheaval? Among the many who have tried, who has gotten close to understanding Area Xand who may have been corrupted by it?
In this New York Times bestselling final installment of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, the mysteries of Area X may be solved, but their consequences and implications are no less profoundor terrifying.
The concluding volume of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (after Annihilation and Authority) brings each of the series’s narrative threads together for an enigmatic but satisfying conclusion. In Annihilation, a single survivor from one of exploratory expeditions to Area X discusses her experiences, a portion of the southern U.S. that has become inexplicably isolated from the rest of the world and from which few visitors return. Authority, the second volume, is a conspiratorial tale about the highly secretive Southern Reach, the organization that, in theory, is attempting to uncover the secrets of the Zone. The story is related by its newly appointed director, Control, who, like many of the characters in the earlier books, reappears in Acceptance. Others about whom we have heard earlier also pop up, including Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper, who was one of the first to experience the Zone. The third book begins with another expedition as a team reenters Area X in search of a lost member. In many ways, this is the most mysterious and puzzling book of the three: VanderMeer employs multiple flashbacks and POVs, which contribute to a multifaceted, mutating portrait of Area X. The pacing of the narrative is slower, but the reader will want to move slowly so as not to miss any of the more subtle occurrences or psychological insights. By the time the book is finished, the reader knows that this trilogy is that rare thing—a set in which the whole is as great as the parts. Agent: Sally Harding, Cooke Agency. (Sept.)
A satisfying conclusion to this captivating trilogy” Booklist
“This trilogy is that rare thinga set in which the whole is as great as the parts.” Publishers Weekly
“I'm loving The Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Creepy and fascinating.” Stephen King on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“Chilling.” Julie Bosman, New York Times on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“VanderMeer masterfully conjures up an atmosphere of both metaphysical dread and visceral tension . . . Annihilation is a novel in which facts are undermined and doubt instilled at almost every turn. It's about science as a way of not only thinking but feeling, rather than science as a means of becoming certain about the world. . . . Ingenious.” Laura Miller, Salon on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“A clear triumph for Vandermeer . . . a compelling, elegant, and existential story . . . .The solitary voice of its post-humanist narrator is both deeply flawed and deeply trustworthya difficult and excellent balance in a novel whose world is built seamlessly and whose symbols are rich and dark.” Lydia Millet, LA Times on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“A book about an intelligent, deadly fungus makes for an enthralling readtrust us.” Tara Wanda Merrigan, GQ on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“[A] strange, clever, off-putting, maddening, claustrophobic, occasionally beautiful, occasionally disturbing and altogether fantastic book . . . Annihilation is a book meant for gulpingfor going in head-first and not coming up for air until you hit the back cover.” Jason Sheehan, NPR Books on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“Successfully creepy, an old-style gothic horror novel set in a not-too-distant future. The best bits turn your mind inside out.” Sara Sklaroff, The Washington Post on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“If J.J. Abrams-style by-the-numbers stories of shadowy organizations and science magic have let you down one too many times, then Annihilation will be more like a revelation. VanderMeer peels back the skin of the everyday, and gives you a glimpse of a world where science really is stretching the bounds of our knowledgesometimes to the point where we can't ever be the same . . . [Annihilation] will make you believe in the power of science mysteries again.” Annalee Nevitz, io9 on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“Fans of the Lost TV series . . . this one is for you.” Molly Driscoll, Christian Science Monitor on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“What frightens you? According to many psychologists, our most widely shared phobia is the fear of falling. Jeff VanderMeer's novel Annihilation taps into that bottomless terror . . . VanderMeer ups the book's eeriness quotient with the smoothest of skill, the subtlest of grace. His prose makes the horrific beautiful.” Nisi Shawl, Seattle Times on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“Much of the flora and fauna seem familiar, but that's what's so fascinating about the carnage that VanderMeer sets loose. He has created a science fiction story about a world much like our own.” John Domini, Miami Herald on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“Annihilation feels akin to isolated sci-fi terrors of Alien . . . teases and terrifies and fascinates.” Kevin Nguyen, Grantland on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“The plot moves quickly and has all the fantastic elements you'd ever wantbiological contaminants, peculiar creatures, mysterious deathsbut it's the novel's unbearable dread that lingers with me days after I've finished it.” Justin Alvarez, The Paris Review on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“Jeff VanderMeer ventures on to strange ground in this enigmatic story.” Alex Good, The Toronto Star on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“[VanderMeer's] writing is courageously imaginative, fiercely unformulaic, and utterly immersive. You don't read Jeff VanderMeer, you experience him.” Paul Goat Allen, The Barnes & Noble Book Blog on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“The first book in what may be a modern classic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi . . . .Annihilation's story struck me hard and pulled me in fast. I haven't had a reading experience this creepy, intense, and edge-of-your-seat since H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.” Paul Schwartz, UR Chicago on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“Annihilation is smart, tense and utterly engrossing.” Mike Reynolds, Bookgasm on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“Master of the literary headtrip Jeff VanderMeeer's Annihilation is simply unlike anything you've read before. It gnaws away at your nerves with a slow-building sense of dread and impending madness.” Marc Savlov, Kirkus Reviews on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“VanderMeer both defies and challenges genre boundaries, forcing readers to forget about traditional tropes and clichés and simply enjoy the storytelling.” John DeNardo, Kirkus "Best Bets for Speculative Fiction Books, February 2014 on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“A gripping fantasy thriller, Annihilation is thoroughly suspenseful.” Heather Paulson, Booklist on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“After their high-risk expedition disintegrates, it's every scientist for herself in this wonderfully creepy blend of horror and science fiction. . . . Speculative fiction at its most transfixing.” Kirkus (Starred Review) on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“A gripping fantasy thriller, Annihilation is thoroughly suspenseful. In a manner similar to H. G. Wells' in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), VanderMeer weaves together an otherworldly tale of the supernatural and the half-human. Delightfully, this page-turner is the first in a trilogy.” Heather Paulson, ALA Booklist (Starred Review) on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“Brilliant . . . ever-more-terrifying, yet ever-more-transcendent . . . .Using evocative descriptions of the biologist's outer and inner worlds, masterful psychological insight, and intellectual observations both profound and disturbingcalling Lovecraft to mind and BorgesVanderMeer unfolds a tale as satisfying as it is richly imagined.” Publishers Weekly on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“In much of Jeff VanderMeer's work, a kind of radiance lies beating beneath the surface of the words. Here in Annihilation, it shines through with warm blazing incandescence. This is one of a grand writer's finest and most dazzling books.” Peter Straub, author of Lost Boy, Lost Girl on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“One of those books where it all comes togetherthe story and the prose and the ideas, all braided into a triple helix that gives rise to something vibrant and alive. Something that grows, word-by-word, into powerful, tangled vines that creep into your mind and take hold of it. Annihilation is brilliant and atmospheric, a novel that has the force of myth.” Charles Yu, author of How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“A dazzling book . . . haunted and haunting.” Kelly Link, author of Magic for Beginners on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“A tense and chilling psychological thriller about an unraveling expedition and the strangeness within us. A little Kubrick, a lot Lovecraft, the novel builds with an unbearable tension and a claustrophobic dread that linger long afterward. I loved it.” Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“The great thing about Annihilation is the strange, elusive, and paranoid world that it creates. . . .I can't wait for the next one.” Brian Evenson, author of Last Days on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“It's been a long time since a book filled me with this kind of palpable, wondrous disquiet, a feeling that started on the first page and that I'm not sure I've yet shaken.” Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“This swift surreal suspense novel reads as if Verne or Wellsian adventurers exploring a mysterious island had warped through into a Kafkaesque nightmare world. The reader will want to stay trapped with the Biologist to find the answers to Area X's mysteries.” Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars trilogy
“Unsettling and un-put-downable like an old-fashioned adventure story, only weirder, beautifully written and not at all old-fashioned.” Karen Joy Fowler, BookPage on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“The prose is phenomenal . . . it toyed with my imagination in ways that haven't happened since A Wrinkle in Time.” Madison Vain, Entertainment Weekly on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“Its deepest terror lies in its exploration of . . . the human heart, and the terror that can grow from the ways in which we are untrue to each other, and to ourselves.” Jared Bland, The Globe and Mail on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“VanderMeer's masterful command of the plot, his cast of characters, and the increasingly desperate situation will leave the reader desperate for the final volume in the trilogy.” Publishers Weekly on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“What frightens you? According to many psychologists, our most widely shared phobia is the fear of falling. Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation taps into that bottomless terror . . . VanderMeer ups the book's eeriness quotient with the smoothest of skill, the subtlest of grace. His prose makes the horrific beautiful.” Nisi Shawl, The Seattle Times on The Southern Reach Trilogy
“There's something Poe-like in this tightening, increasingly paranoid focus . . . the payoff is absolutely worth the patience.” N.K. Jemisin, The New York Times on The Southern Reach Trilogy
It's been a long time since a book filled me with this kind of palpable, wondrous disquiet, a feeling that started on the first page and that I'm not sure I've yet shaken.
A tense and chilling psychological thriller about an unraveling expedition and the strangeness within us. A little Kubrick, a lot Lovecraft, the novel builds with an unbearable tension and a claustrophobic dread that linger long afterward. I loved it.
A dazzling book . . . haunted and haunting.
One of those books where it all comes together--the story and the prose and the ideas, all braided into a triple helix that gives rise to something vibrant and alive. Something that grows, word-by-word, into powerful, tangled vines that creep into your mind and take hold of it. Annihilation is brilliant and atmospheric, a novel that has the force of myth.
A gripping fantasy thriller, Annihilation is thoroughly suspenseful. In a manner similar to H. G. Wells' in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), VanderMeer weaves together an otherworldly tale of the supernatural and the half-human. Delightfully, this page-turner is the first in a trilogy.
[VanderMeer's] writing is courageously imaginative, fiercely unformulaic, and utterly immersive. You don't read Jeff VanderMeer, you experience him.
Fans of the Lost TV series . . . this one is for you.
The concluding installment of the Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, 2014; Authority, 2014) ends where the story began: in a cloud of hallucinatory mystery. In the present (presumably the present—time does strange things in this novel), Control, the failed director of the Southern Reach, and Ghost Bird, the "copy" of the biologist from Annihilation, travel through Area X, searching for the original biologist. Parallel storylines set in the past explain how Saul Evans, Area X's erstwhile lighthouse keeper, became the creature known as the Crawler and explore both his encounters with the little girl who grew up to be the Southern Authority's previous director and her resolve as an adult to return to Area X. What is, where is, and why is Area X? Is it in another dimension? Is it actually on another planet? Is it some kind of alien experiment? VanderMeer does not provide these answers; a tidy resolution is clearly not his goal, and those seeking such a thing were presumably perceptive enough to give up before reaching this volume. The series is less about a straight throughline of plot and more about constructing a fully realized portrait of peculiar, often alienated people and the odd landscapes they inhabit, both inside and outside of their skulls; and this the author has decidedly achieved. This trilogy represents an interesting pivot for VanderMeer: Although sharing many of the same motifs—metamorphosis, unusual fungi and other organic material, a pull toward the sea—it's actually more restrained (if no less vivid) than the lush baroquerie of his earlier works. We leave knowing more about Area X than we started; we may not understand it any better, but we leave transformed, as do all travelers to that uncanny place.
The third volume in the "Southern Reach" trilogy (after Annihilation and Authority) takes us back to the region known as Area X. While book two dealt with the administrator known as Control, who headed up the facility responsible for sending expeditions to the area, in the final volume we revisit not only Control but also the biologist from Annihilation, now known as Ghost Bird, and the lighthouse keeper who lived in Area X before it was sealed off. VERDICT Those reading with a hope that all will be explained and all loose ends will be neatly tied up might not be happy with this final title. Easy answers are not on offer from VanderMeer, but he does give a sense of closure, and the three books together stand as a remarkable imaginative achievement. Displaying the dizzying skill with imagery and language that have been seen throughout the series, the author leaves readers with some answers, more questions, and an appreciation of the journey.
Read an Excerpt
0001: THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER
Overhauled the lens machinery and cleaned the lens. Fixed the water pipe in the garden. Small repair to the gate. Organized the tools and shovels etc. in the shed. S&SB visit. Need to requisition paint for daymark—black eroded on seaward side. Also need nails and to check the western siren again. Sighted: pelicans, moorhens, some kind of warbler, blackbirds beyond number, sanderlings, a royal tern, an osprey, flickers, cormorants, bluebirds, pigmy rattlesnake (at the fence—remember), rabbit or two, white-tailed deer, and near dawn, on the trail, many an armadillo.
That winter morning, the wind was cold against the collar of Saul Evans’s coat as he trudged down the trail toward the lighthouse. There had been a storm the night before, and down and to his left, the ocean lay gray and roiling against the dull blue of the sky, seen through the rustle and sway of the sea oats. Driftwood and bottles and faded white buoys and a dead hammerhead shark had washed up in the aftermath, tangled among snarls of seaweed, but no real damage either here or in the village.
At his feet lay bramble and the thick gray of thistles that would bloom purple in the spring and summer. To his right, the ponds were dark with the muttering complaints of grebes and buffleheads. Blackbirds plunged the thin branches of trees down, exploded upward in panic at his passage, settled back into garrulous communities. The brisk, fresh salt smell to the air had an edge of flame: a burning smell from some nearby house or still-smoldering bonfire.
Saul had lived in the lighthouse for four years before he’d met Charlie, and he lived there still, but last night he’d stayed in the village a half mile away, in Charlie’s cottage. A new thing this, not agreed to with words, but with Charlie pulling him back to bed when he’d been about to put on his clothes and leave. A welcome thing that put an awkward half smile on Saul’s face.
Charlie’d barely stirred as Saul had gotten up, dressed, made eggs for breakfast. He’d served Charlie a generous portion with a slice of orange, kept hot under a bowl, and left a little note beside the toaster, bread at the ready. As he’d left, he’d turned to look at the man sprawled on his back half in and half out of the sheets. Even into his late thirties, Charlie had the lean, muscular torso, strong shoulders, and stout legs of a man who had spent much of his adult life on boats, hauling in nets, and the flat belly of someone who didn’t spend too many nights out drinking.
A quiet click of the door, then whistling into the wind like an idiot as soon as he’d taken a few steps—thanking the God who’d made him, in the end, so lucky, even if in such a delayed and unexpected way. Some things came to you late, but late was better than never.
Soon the lighthouse rose solid and tall above him. It served as a daymark so boats could navigate the shallows, but also was lit at night half the week, corresponding to the schedules of commercial traffic farther out to sea. He knew every step of its stairs, every room inside its stone-and-brick walls, every crack and bit of spackle. The spectacular four-ton lens, or beacon, at the top had its own unique signature, and he had hundreds of ways to adjust its light. A first-order lens, over a century old.
As a preacher he thought he had known a kind of peace, a kind of calling, but only after his self-exile, giving all of that up, had Saul truly found what he was looking for. It had taken more than a year for him to understand why: Preaching had been projecting out, imposing himself on the world, with the world then projecting onto him. But tending to the lighthouse—that was a way of looking inward and it felt less arrogant. Here, he knew nothing but the practical, learned from his predecessor: how to maintain the lens, the precise workings of the ventilator and the lens-access panel, how to maintain the grounds, how to fix all the things that broke—scores of daily tasks. He welcomed each part of the routine, relished how it gave him no time to think about the past, and didn’t mind sometimes working long hours—especially now, in the afterglow of Charlie’s embrace.
But that afterglow faded when he saw what awaited him in the gravel parking lot, inside the crisp white fence that surrounded the lighthouse and the grounds. A familiar beat-up station wagon stood there, and beside it the usual two Séance & Science Brigade recruits. They’d snuck up on him again, crept in to ruin his good mood, and even piled their equipment beside the car already—no doubt in a hurry to start. He waved to them from afar in a halfhearted way.
They were always present now, taking measurements and photographs, dictating statements into their bulky tape recorders, making their amateur movies. Intent on finding … what? He knew the history of the coast here, the way that distance and silence magnified the mundane. How into those spaces and the fog and the empty line of the beach thoughts could turn to the uncanny and begin to create a story out of nothing.
Saul took his time because he found them tiresome and increasingly predictable. They traveled in pairs, so they could have their séance and their science both, and he sometimes wondered about their conversations—how full of contradictions they must be, like the arguments going on inside his head toward the end of his ministry. Lately the same two had come by: a man and a woman, both in their twenties, although sometimes they seemed more like teenagers, a boy and girl who’d run away from home dragging a store-bought chemistry set and a Ouija board behind them.
Henry and Suzanne. Although Saul had assumed the woman was the superstitious one, it turned out she was the scientist—of what?—and the man was the investigator of the uncanny. Henry spoke with a slight accent, one Saul couldn’t place, that put an emphatic stamp of authority on everything he said. He was plump, as clean-shaven as Saul was bearded, with shadows under his pale blue eyes, black hair in a modified bowl cut with bangs that obscured a pale, unusually long forehead. Henry didn’t seem to care about worldly things, like the winter weather, because he always wore some variation on a delicate blue button-down silk shirt with dress slacks. The shiny black boots with zippers down the side weren’t for trails but for city streets.
Suzanne seemed more like what people today called a hippie but would’ve called a communist or bohemian when Saul was growing up. She had blond hair and wore a white embroidered peasant blouse and a brown suede skirt down below the knee, to meet the calf-high tan boots that completed her uniform. A few like her had wandered into his ministry from time to time—lost, living in their own heads, waiting for something to ignite them. The frailty of her form made her somehow more Henry’s twin, not less.
The two had never given him their last names, although one or the other had said something that sounded like “Serum-list” once, which made no sense. Saul didn’t really want to know them better, if he was honest, had taken to calling them “the Light Brigade” behind their backs, as in “lightweights.”
When he finally stood in front of them, Saul greeted them with a nod and a gruff hello, and they acted, as they often did, like he was a clerk in the village grocery store and the lighthouse a business that offered some service to the public. Without the twins’ permit from the parks service, he would have shut the door in their faces.
“Saul, you don’t look very happy even though it is a beautiful day,” Henry said.
“Saul, it’s a beautiful day,” Suzanne added.
He managed a nod and a sour smile, which set them both off into paroxysms of laughter. He ignored that.
But they continued to talk as Saul unlocked the door. They always wanted to talk, even though he’d have preferred that they just got on with their business. This time it was about something called “necromantic doubling,” which had to do with building a room of mirrors and darkness as far as he could tell. It was a strange term and he ignored their explanations, saw no way in which it had any relationship to the beacon or his life at the lighthouse.
People weren’t ignorant here, but they were superstitious, and given that the sea could claim lives, who could blame them. What was the harm of a good-luck charm worn on a necklace, or saying a few words in prayer to keep a loved one safe? Interlopers trying to make sense of things, trying to “analyze and survey” as Suzanne had put it, turned people off because it trivialized the tragedies to come. But like those annoying rats of the sky, the seagulls, you got used to the Light Brigade after a while. On dreary days he had almost learned not to begrudge the company. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but not notice the log in your own eye?
“Henry thinks the beacon could operate much like such a room,” Suzanne said, as if this was some major and astounding discovery. Her enthusiasm struck him as serious and authentic and yet also frivolous and amateurish. Sometimes they reminded him of the traveling preachers who set up tents at the edges of small towns and had the fervor of their convictions but not much else. Sometimes he even believed they were charlatans. The first time he’d met them, Saul thought Henry had said they were studying the refraction of light in a prison.
“Are you familiar with these theories?” Suzanne asked as they started to climb; she was lightly adorned with a camera strapped around her neck and a suitcase in one hand. Henry was trying not to seem winded, and said nothing. He was wrestling with heavy equipment, some of it in a box: mics, headphones, UV light readers, 8mm film, and a couple of machines featuring dials, knobs, and other indicators.
“No,” Saul said, mostly to be contrary, because Suzanne often treated him like someone without culture, mistook his brusqueness for ignorance, his casual clothes as belonging to a simple man. Besides, the less he said, the more relaxed they were around him. It’d been the same with potential donors as a preacher. And the truth was, he didn’t know what she was talking about, just as he hadn’t known what Henry meant when he’d said they were studying the “taywah” or “terror” of the region, even when he’d spelled it out as t-e-r-r-o-i-r.
“Prebiotic particles,” Henry managed in a jovial if wheezy tone. “Ghost energy.”
As Suzanne backed that up with a longish lecture about mirrors and things that could peer out of mirrors and how you might look at something sideways and know more about its true nature than head-on, he wondered if Henry and Suzanne were lovers; her sudden enthusiasm for the séance part of the brigade might have a fairly prosaic origin. That would also explain their hysterical laughter down below. An ungenerous thought, but he’d wanted to bask in the afterglow of the night with Charlie.
“Meet you up there,” he said finally, having had enough, and leaped up the stairs, taking them two at a time while Henry and Suzanne labored below, soon out of sight. He wanted as much time at the top without them as possible. The government would retire him at fifty, mandatory, but he planned to be as in shape then as now. Despite the twinge in his joints.
At the top, hardly even breathing heavy, Saul was happy to find the lantern room as he’d left it, with the lens bag placed over the beacon, to avoid both scratching and discoloration from the sun. All he had to do was open the lens curtains around the parapet to let in light. His concession to Henry, for just a few hours a day.
Once, from this vantage, he’d seen something vast rippling through the water beyond the sandbars, a kind of shadow, the grayness so dark and deep it had formed a thick, smooth shape against the blue. Even with his binoculars he could not tell what creature it was, or what it might become if he stared at it long enough. Didn’t know if eventually it had scattered into a thousand shapes, revealed as a school of fish, or if the color of the water, the sharpness of the light, changed and made it disappear, revealed as an illusion. In that tension between what he could and couldn’t know about even the mundane world, he felt at home in a way he would not have five years ago. He needed no greater mysteries now than those moments when the world seemed as miraculous as in his old sermons. And it was a good story for down at the village bar, the kind of story they expected from the lighthouse keeper, if anyone expected anything from him at all.
“So that’s why it’s of interest to us, what with the way the lens wound up here, and how that relates to the whole history of both lighthouses,” Suzanne said from behind him. She had been having a conversation with Saul in his absence, apparently, and seemed to believe he had been responding. Behind her, Henry was about ready to collapse, although the trek had become a regular routine.
When he’d dropped the equipment and regained his breath, Henry said, “You have a marvelous view from up here.” He always said this, and Saul had stopped giving a polite response, or any response.
“How long are you here for this time?” Saul asked. This particular stint had already lasted two weeks, and he’d put off asking, fearing the answer.
Henry’s shadow-circled gaze narrowed. “This time our permit allows us access through the end of the year.” Some old injury or accident of birth meant his head was bent to the right, especially when he spoke, right ear almost touching the upward slope of his shoulder. It gave him a mechanical aspect.
“Just a reminder: You can touch the beacon, but you can’t in any way interfere with its function.” Saul had repeated this warning every day since they’d come back. Sometimes in the past they’d had strange ideas about what they could and could not do.
“Relax, Saul,” Suzanne said, and he gritted his teeth at her use of his first name. At the beginning, they’d called him Mr. Evans, which he preferred.
He took more than the usual juvenile pleasure in positioning them on the rug, beneath which lay a trapdoor and a converted watch room that had once held the supplies needed to maintain the light before the advent of automation. Keeping the room from them felt like keeping a compartment of his mind hidden from their experiments. Besides, if these two were as observant as they seemed to think they were, they would have realized what the sudden cramping of the stairs near the top meant.
When he was satisfied they had settled in and were unlikely to disturb anything, he gave them a nod and left. Halfway down, he thought he heard a breaking sound from above. It did not repeat. He hesitated, then shrugged it off, continued to the bottom of the spiral stairs.
* * *
Below, Saul busied himself with the grounds and organizing the toolshed, which had become a mess. More than one hiker wandering through had seemed surprised to find a lighthouse keeper walking the grounds around the tower as if he were a hermit crab without its shell, but in fact there was a lot of maintenance required due to the way storms and the salt air could wear down everything if he wasn’t vigilant. In the summer, it was harder, with the heat and the biting flies.
The girl, Gloria, snuck up on him while he was inspecting the boat he kept behind the shed. The shed abutted a ridge of soil and coquina parallel to the beach and a line of rocks stretching out to sea. At high tide, the sea flowed up to reinvigorate tidal pools full of sea anemones, starfish, blue crabs, snails, and sea cucumbers.
She was a solid, tall presence for her age, big for nine—“Nine and a half!”—and although Gloria sometimes wobbled on those rocks there was rarely any wobble in her young mind, which Saul admired. His own middle-aged brain sometimes slipped a gear or two.
So there she was again, a sturdy figure on the rocks, in her winter-weather gear—jeans, hooded jacket and sweater underneath, thick boots for wide feet—as he finished with the boat and brought compost around back in the wheelbarrow. She was talking to him. She was always talking to him, ever since she’d started coming by about a year ago.
“You know my ancestors lived here,” she said. “Mama says they lived right here, where the lighthouse is.” She had a deep and level voice for one so young, which sometimes startled him.
“So did mine, child,” Saul told her, upturning the wheelbarrow load into the compost pile. Although truth was, the other side of his family had been an odd combination of rumrunners and fanatics who he liked to say, down at the bar, “had come to this land fleeing religious freedom.”
After considering Saul’s assertion for a moment, Gloria said, “Not before mine.”
“Does it matter?” He noticed he’d missed some caulking on the boat.
The child frowned; he could feel her frown at his back, it was that powerful. “I don’t know.” He looked over at her, saw she’d stopped hopping between rocks, had decided that teetering on a dangerously sharp one made more sense. The sight made his stomach lurch, but he knew she never slipped, even though she seemed in danger of it many times, and as many times as he’d talked to her about it, she’d always ignored him.
“I think so,” she said, picking up the conversation. “I think it does.”
“I’m one-eighth Indian,” he said. “I was here, too. Part of me.” For what that was worth. A distant relative had told him about the lighthouse keeper’s job, it was true, but no one else had wanted it.
“So what,” she said, jumping to another sharp rock, balancing atop it, arms for a moment flailing and Saul taking a couple of steps closer to her out of fear.
She annoyed him much of the time, but he hadn’t yet been able to shake her loose. Her father lived in the middle of the country somewhere, and her mother worked two jobs from a bungalow up the coast. The mother had to drive to far-off Bleakersville at least once a week, and probably figured her kid could manage on her own every now and again. Especially if the lighthouse keeper was looking after her. And the lighthouse held a kind of fascination for Gloria that he hadn’t been able to break with his boring shed maintenance and wheelbarrow runs to the compost pile.
In the winter, too, she would be by herself a lot anyway—out on the mudflats just to the west, poking at fiddler crab holes with a stick or chasing after a half-domesticated doe, or peering at coyote or bear scat as if it held some secret. Whatever was on offer.
“Who’re those strange people, coming around here?” she asked.
That almost made him laugh. There were a lot of strange people hidden away on the forgotten coast, himself included. Some were hiding from the government, some from themselves, some from spouses. A few believed that they were creating their own sovereign states. A couple probably weren’t in the country legally. People asked questions out here, but they didn’t expect an honest answer. Just an inventive one.
“Who exactly do you mean?”
“The ones with the pipes?”
It took Saul a moment, during which he imagined Henry and Suzanne skipping along the beach, pipes in their mouths, smoking away furiously.
“Pipes. Oh, they weren’t pipes. They were something else.” More like huge translucent mosquito coils. He’d let the Light Brigade leave the coils in the back room on the ground floor for a few months last summer. How in the heck had she seen that, anyway?
“Who are they?” she persisted, as she balanced now on two rocks, which at least meant Saul could breathe again.
“They’re from the island up the coast.” Which was true—their base was still out on Failure Island, home to dozens of them, a regular warren. “Doing tests,” as the rumors went down at the village bar, where they did indeed like a good story. Private researchers with government approval to take readings. But the rumors also insinuated that the S&SB had some more sinister agenda. Was it the orderliness, the precision, of some of them or the disorganization of the others that led to this rumor? Or just a couple of bored, drunk retirees emerging from their mobile homes to spin stories?
The truth was he didn’t know what they were doing out on the island, or what they had planned to do with the equipment on the ground floor, or even what Henry and Suzanne were doing at the top of the lighthouse right now.
“They don’t like me,” she said. “And I don’t like them.”
That did make him chuckle, especially the brazen, arms-folded way she said it, like she’d decided they were her eternal enemy.
“Are you laughing at me?”
“No,” he said. “No, I’m not. You’re a curious person. You ask questions. That’s why they don’t like you. That’s all.” People who asked questions didn’t necessarily like being asked questions.
“What’s wrong with asking questions?”
“Nothing.” Everything. Once the questions snuck in, whatever had been certain became uncertain. Questions opened the way for doubt. His father had told him that. “Don’t let them ask questions. You’re already giving them the answers, even if they don’t know it.”
“But you’re curious, too,” she said.
“Why do you say that?”
“You guard the light. And light sees everything.”
* * *
The light might see everything, but he’d forgotten a few last tasks, a few last things that would keep him out of the lighthouse for longer than he liked. He moved the wheelbarrow onto the gravel next to the station wagon. He felt a vague urgency, as if he should check on Henry and Suzanne. What if they had found the trapdoor and done something stupid, like fallen in and broken their strange little necks? Staring up just then, he saw Henry staring down from the railing far above, and that made him feel foolish. Like he was being paranoid. Henry waved, or was it some other gesture? Dizzy, Saul looked away as he made a kind of wheeling turn, disoriented by the sun’s glare.
Only to see something glittering from the lawn—half hidden by a plant rising from a tuft of weeds near where he’d found a dead squirrel a couple of days ago. Glass? A key? The dark green leaves formed a rough circle, obscuring whatever lay at its base. He knelt, shielded his gaze, but the glinting thing was still hidden by the leaves of the plant, or was it part of a leaf? Whatever it was, it was delicate beyond measure, yet perversely reminded him of the four-ton lens far above his head.
The sun was a whispering corona at his back. The heat had risen, but there was a breeze that lifted the leaves of the palmettos in a rattling stir. The girl was somewhere behind him singing a nonsense song, having come back off the rocks earlier than he’d expected.
Nothing existed in that moment except for the plant and the gleam he could not identify.
He had gloves on still, so he knelt beside the plant and reached for the glittering thing, brushing up against the leaves. Was it a tiny shifting spiral of light? It reminded him of what you might see staring into a kaleidoscope, except an intense white. But whatever it was swirled and glinted and eluded his rough grasp, and he began to feel faint.
Alarmed, he started to pull back.
But it was too late. He felt a sliver enter his thumb. There was no pain, only a pressure and then numbness, but he still jumped up in surprise, yowling and waving his hand back and forth. He frantically tore off the glove, examined his thumb. Aware that Gloria was watching him, not sure what to make of him.
Nothing now glittered on the ground in front of him. No light at the base of the plant. No pain in his thumb.
Slowly, Saul relaxed. Nothing throbbed in his thumb. There was no entry point, no puncture. He picked up the glove, checked it, couldn’t find a tear.
“What’s wrong?” Gloria asked. “Did you get stung?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
He felt other eyes upon him then, turned, and there stood Henry. How had he gotten down the stairs so fast? Had more time passed than he’d imagined?
“Yes—is something wrong, Saul?” Henry asked, but Saul could find no way to reconcile the concern expressed with any concern in the tone of his voice. Because there was none. Only a peculiar eagerness.
“Nothing is wrong,” he said, uneasy but not knowing why he should be. “Just pricked my thumb.”
“Through your gloves? That must have been quite the thorn.” Henry was scanning the ground like someone who had lost a favorite watch or a wallet full of money.
“I’m fine, Henry. Don’t worry about me.” Angry more at looking silly over nothing, but also wanting Henry to believe him. “Maybe it was an electric shock.”
“Maybe…” The gleam of the man’s eyes was the light of a cold beacon coming to Saul from far off, as if Henry were broadcasting some other message entirely.
“Nothing is wrong,” Saul said again.
Nothing was wrong.
Copyright © 2014 by VanderMeer Creative, Inc.