What he Found in the Punta Gorda Lighthouse
The headlines that summer caused short-lived panic at Humoldt State University.
Humane Leg found in Punta Gorda Ligthouse.
Mad River Murderer Mad for College Students.
Jacob Turner Missing from Cypress.
It was the last headline that actually caused panic to flood my system. It was buried in the back of the newspaper, hidden between articles on Arcata’s marijuana usage and pieces outlining the college’s latest environmental triumph. The small missing person’s report stung my eyes as I read it. The impersonal nature was like a dagger.
Jacob Turner, age nineteen, missing from Cypress Dorms Floor Eight. Last seen leaving dorm. 5’10 male, 169 lbs, dark brown hair, blue eyes. For any sightings or information to report, please call the Arcata Police Department.
In my mind, I envisioned a different headline, one much more real and much more personal.
Drug addict Jake Turner missing after rejected cruelly by freshman, Amelia Grey. Turner was forced to leave his dorm alone to go to the Punta Gorda lighthouse to film a project for Film235 after Grey refused to go with him. Parents and classmates blame Grey now that a male leg has turned up near the lighthouse. Had she gone with him, Turner might still be alive today.
I told myself repeatedly that I was not at fault despite the accusations made by my dorm mates and Jake’s. Jake’s room mate, Matt (and my room mate’s boyfriend), definitely let me know exactly how much I was responsible for after a late night of rubbing his hands up and down my room mate, Sara.
“Your room mate is such a buzz kill,” he said, glancing up to where I was studying silently on my bed from across the room.
Sara pushed away from him. “She lives here, Matt.” Always on my side. I loved her just as much as I couldn’t stand boys.
“Well, it’s just hard to get in the mood knowing that a murderer is watching us.” His eyes bore knives into my skin. I pretended not to hear, but I was already staring at a blank page on my laptop. I think I began to breathe a little more heavily.
“Matt!” Sara exclaimed. She wriggled away from him even more. I loved her so much.
“It’s just . . . It’s hard knowing that perfect Amelia is judging us from over there. Virgin-Amelia. Never-done-drugs-Amelia. She didn’t know what Jake’s life was like.”
It’s not my fault! I wanted to scream, but I little Sara speak for me instead.
“Well, someone who drowns their depression with drugs isn’t exactly the best boyfriend material.”
Depression? I finally looked over to meet Sara’s apologetic eyes. Perhaps Jake and I really were more similar than I thought.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like Jake, but there was something so disparate between a film major with the work ethic of a two-year-old and a drug habit that would disappoint Lindsay Lohan and a straight-A biology major from out of state who would rather spend Friday nights reading a good book than ever going to a party. I had tried to talk to him, to like him, but his easy way of striking conversations and making me smile actually terrified me. Call it a phobia of commitment. Call it rampant social anxiety. It hardly mattered that I found him slightly attractive; I physically could not agree to a relationship. The thought of even holding hands with Jacob Turner was much more terrifying than the human leg a few hikers found at the lighthouse. A human leg that could have been Jake’s.
Was it really then my fault? Was I really the one deserving of Matt’s venomous hate and Sara’s beautiful sympathy? Did I really warrant the nightmares I had of Jake’s and my last interaction?
He had come up to me as I was studying in our living room. The boy’s dorm was just across from ours, and my room mates loved to always leave the doors unlocked (it seemed to double their chances of scoring drugs and sex). He sat down next to me, uncomfortably close, and gave me a pearly smile, one that I almost couldn’t refuse.
“I have a proposition for you,” he said in a way that he probably thought was irresistible. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that I was a queen at resistance.
“What?” I asked, letting the obvious annoyance and boredom lace my tone. I tapped my laptop’s keys a few times in frustration.
“Well, I’ll get right to it. I’m filming a movie for my film class, and I’d like you to help me with it.”
“Oh really?” I still didn’t look at him. Had I even looked at him once during that conversation?
“Yeah! I mean, I want you to be in it. You can be the star. It’s going to be about the ghost encounters at the Punta Gorda lighthouse, or perhaps something about human insanity.”
“Are you calling me insane?” It was a joke, but it came out as more of a statement.
“No, no! I was just . . . I mean . . . I think it would be nice if we spent some time together, you know? Like . . . like a date, maybe?”
My heart raced. I guess I really didn’t look at him. I couldn’t bring myself to turn my head. “Jake, I’m very busy. I have two essays due tomorrow and a bunch of other homework and – “
“Amy, please, it will be fun, I promise.”
“I’m busy Jake. Not now.”
“You’re always ‘busy.’ Come on, just help me out here. Give me a chance.”
“Jake, I said not now.”
“God, Amy, please? Do I have to fucking beg?”
“Jake, I said no.”
It was with that last word, laced with clear irritation that he stormed out of my dorm. I think I just caught a glimpse of his back, the last I saw of him. It was when Sara told me Jake never came home that night that I began to grow worried. It was when Matt chucked a newspaper at my face that I began to actually panic. A human leg. A missing film student. My fault. My fault. My fault.
Sara only confronted me about it two weeks after Jake’s disappearance when Matt told her he refused to come over anymore. Or, at least, not until I was gone.
“Amy, I haven’t seen Matt in a few days. He won’t come here.” Was that accusation I heard in her voice, too?
My eyes stung. Her displeasure was an emotion I could not take. “I know he’s mad at me. I don’t mean to make your life hard, you know that.”
“No, I know, but . . . but he just misses Jake so much.”
“Sara, it’s not my fault! I don’t know what happened to him! I told you that he just stormed off on me. I don’t even know where he went.”
Sara was quiet for a few moments. Then, “You’ve been having nightmares. You scream out at night.”
I pursed my lips. “And? What’s your point?”
“I think you’re feeling guilty, Amy. You’re starting to look kind of sick. You’re losing weight. I’m worried about you.”
I lost it. Tears flowing like the river the leg was found by poured down my face. I realized that Sara’s eyes glistened not with disgust, but with pity. Somehow, that was much worse.
“It’s not my fault, but that leg, Sara, that leg. What if it’s his? What if he’s. . . .” I was unable to finish the sentence. I was incapable of doing many things, it seemed.
“Amy, you’re not going to feel better unless you actually believe it’s not your fault. I don’t blame you, but you need to figure out a way to not blame yourself. I meant what I said that you and Jake wouldn’t have been good together. You’re too good for him.”
I smiled then, just a small smirk breaking the wave of sorrow. Sara still loved me, and that gave me a little bit of courage.
“Sara . . . I think Jake actually went to the lighthouse that night. He was filming something there. I didn’t go with him. Should I . . . should I tell the cops.”
I could tell by the way her head bobbed slightly that she wanted me to, but she instead just said, “I think you need to do what you think is best.”
And that’s how I found myself standing alone in front of the Punta Gorda lighthouse.
Fog from the ocean mingled with the dreary drizzle that seemed to constantly plague Northern California. It enveloped the natural beauty of the area with a gray film, hiding the wildflowers and dampening the sparkle of the bay. The sun even refused to shine past the dark clouds. It was as if God himself demanded the scene to be miserable. It was as if he stole all the comfort of the normally gorgeous hike and hid it behind a fog of my guilt. You are responsible for this, the weather seemed to say. I couldn’t help but to agree.
I had travelled this trail before during one of my early-morning hikes, so I should have been used to the solitude. But it was crushing, suffocating this time. Claustrophobic. I suddenly wished for the first time that I wasn’t alone. I even wished Jake to come out of the fog, alive and well, just so that I didn’t have to endure the pain on my own. I reached for Sara’s invisible hand. Anything to relieve the self-reproach.
I had seen the lighthouse before, but it was much different this time swathed with rain and shadowy clouds. It was a single, white building nestled on an overlook of the ocean, about the size of a small house. A black tower arose from its top, completed with the actual lighthouse like an over-large Victorian lantern. Even the first time I had run my hands along the peeling paint, I was wrapped up in the sense that I was unwelcome, that the abandonment was not friendly. And with Mother Nature having fled from me, too, I realized that it really was just me and my shame, face-to-face. I took in a breath of the humid air, and I slowly creaked open the door to the lighthouse.
There was no barricade, no gate, no sign to prevent me from entering. Could something have been saying that nothing would stop me from facing my fears? Or was it that nothing would stop my fears from facing me? Either way, the blackness that greeted me was absolute and terrifying. I grappled for the safety of my flashlight.
I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had listened to my voice of reason telling me to turn away. It wasn’t my fault. But that little bug of guilt that still clung to my heart led the beam of light to rest on a small object that made my stomach catch in my throat. I wanted to hurl. I might have, anyways.
It was Jake’s video camera.
Silence. Just me and the camera alone in the darkness, perhaps just inches away from where they found the leg. Perhaps just inches away from where they might find a body. My whole world trembled as I leaned down to pick it up. I might have just collapsed to my knees, but I still wound up with the cold equipment shaking in my hands.
It was not my fault.
I turned the camera on.
I replayed the video, dated the night he disappeared. A sickening, slithering sound added accompaniment to the rain hammering outside. Maybe it was just the camera trying to regain life after a few weeks of disuse. I knew nothing of electronics.
Jake’s face swam from the screen, filtered by tears threatening to spill from my eyes. He looked positively defeated in the video. His words seemed to chill the building and my very bones.
“This lighthouse served as a beacon for ships. It was meant to guide ships to safety so that wandering sailors could find their way back home. In fact, isn’t that what Humboldt is all about? Wandering children becoming lost in the redwoods and intense academics, trying to find out who they are? Trying to establish a home?”
He looked away from the camera. His surroundings were pitch black. He was illuminated only by the light of the video. When he glanced back, he appeared even more distraught.
“Or, at least, that’s what Humboldt was supposed to be about. Now the lighthouse is abandoned. Now nobody is trying to help the wandering find their way. They are left to struggle for eternity in the ocean. They are left to drown. People report seeing ghosts here now. I can see why. It is rather spooky how life can just abandon people. How parents can just disown their ‘fruity’ artistic son to sink under the waves at college without calling once to see if he needs help floating. How the one person who you assume is genuinely nice can just leave you to die. You see, this lighthouse represents those the world has given up on. It – “
The video cut out at this point into darkness. Another sound like a nail being dragged across a chalkboard reverberated around the lighthouse followed by an echo close to what I assumed a moving snake would sound like. I whacked the camera in frustration. Jake deserved better than this piece of junk.
When the camera came on again, I realized that Jake was still standing in the same position, sorrowful eyes rooted to the screen. He was silent, but was he . . . crying? Jarring, the camera began to shake as he started to laugh.
“Did you know that this place is also called the Alcatraz Lighthouse? I guess it’s because it’s so remote. I guess it’s because people who come here really are prisoners. Prisoners to their minds. Prisoners to the drugs. Prisoners to the ghosts.”
“I didn’t know that. You are pretty smart, Jake. Sorry I thought otherwise,” I mumbled to the camera. My voice seemed awfully loud in the lighthouse. The back of my neck prickled. Was he watching me? I turned around, but I was met by absolutely nothing.
Again, the video cut out with another, drawn-out slithering sound. I figured it was more like a bag of wet laundry being dragged across a wooden floor. Were cameras supposed to make that sound?
The shot of Jacob returned, but he had moved. It looked like he was now sitting in front of the door to the lighthouse, cross-legged, the camera placed a few feet from his body. He was rocking back and forth slightly. He looked scared.
“It’s raining outside. I can’t get the door open. I tried. There’s something wrong with it, and I can’t find another way out. It’s too dark. Amy, I’m so glad that you didn’t come along with me. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I got you into this mess, not that I can live with myself, anyways.” He smirked sadly at the camera, and I did cry then, tears matching tears.
In the next scene, he was standing in front of a window, pounding at it, throwing his weight up against it. He tried to force it open. It wouldn’t move at all. It looked like it was still raining outside. He didn’t look at the camera, but he still spoke.
“Shit, these windows must be bullet-proof or something. I think I’ve been stuck in here for a couple days already. God, I’m so hungry. I found something in here, I think it was a really old piece of pork, but I still ate it even though I’ll probably die from poisoning. Whatever. I don’t want to live anyways.”
The next shot, he was rocking back and forth more violently, clutching at his head. His clothes were covered with the grime of the lighthouse, and he was actually beginning to look thin.
“I’m . . . I’m hearing things. It’s not the rain. You know how sometimes you have those really bad acid trips, and you don’t know what’s real and what’s not? Yeah, it’s something like that. I’m hearing something like . . . like nails. There’s this scratching sound. And I’m seeing shadows. I think . . . I think I’ve finally lost it. Well, tell my parents that they were right. I was psychotic all along.” His laugh this time cut deeply into my chest. Was that slithering noise really more of a scratching one? Was it coming from behind me, or was it still resonating from the camera?
Blackness like death. A shot of him in a corner in a fetal position.
“I don’t know how long I’ve been here. It’s still fucking raining. Drip drip drip. I’m going crazy. I think. But I saw it. I saw it. It’s not a ghost, Amy. It’s big. It’s really, freakin’ big. I think it’s messing with me. From what I could tell, it’s not human. I mean, it’s walking on all fours. Crawling, actually. It’s covered with hooks. Stitched in its skin. Hooks. Captain Hook. I think I’m Peter Pan. My parents would call me Tinker Bell, I think. But anyways, Amy, I know you like this paranormal crap, so I kind of wish you were here to tell me what this thing is. It has fangs. I know it’s not friendly. How do I stop it? Amy, you would know. God, I wish you were here.”
I somehow found my own footing. With the camera still glued to my hands, I stood up on shaking legs. From beyond the screen, I thought I saw a shadow, too.
“Jake? Jake, please, please let that be you,” I called out. The only response was the sound of something crawling along the floor. Four legs scrabbling against the old, moldy wood. It was coming closer. But the last camera shot appeared, and my eyes were immediately drawn to Jake’s form highlighted against a window. I might have threw up again; he was bleeding from multiple scratches on his bare arms.
“It’s after me. I can hear it. I can see it. It’s cut my wrists. It’s like the depression all over again. I just want out. I want out of this prison. But it’s coming for me. I think it’s name might be something like ‘loneliness’ or ‘misery.’ Or both. I don’t know. It might be a demon, but Amy would know. She would know. She was my light. It’s extinguished now. I’m . . . I’m going to die.”
The camera blanked after that one last time, but not because it seemed to have been turned off, but because it had been swiveled around from where it was lying to face a blank wall. Something had moved it, something that just briefly flashed a grotesquely large, clawed hand in front of the lens. And then there was the screaming. I couldn’t see him, but Jake started shrieking from just outside the shot like a cat being tortured. Sounds like you get when you crunch a cricket’s bones blared from the speakers, and I could hear a low growling and tearing.
I panicked then. I dropped the camera and ran back towards the door, tripping on something long in the process. It felt like a log, and I kicked it out of the way as I scrambled for safety. I could hear something coming after me. Was that a flash of red eyes? I tried the door, but it wouldn’t open. I slammed against it. Nothing. And all the while, whatever was with me in the lighthouse was drawing closer, four hands with nails clawing at the ground, sinister snarling audibly coming nearer.
But what Sara had said was true; Jake and I weren’t a good match. He might’ve been smart and creative, but I was so much smarter and clever. I grabbed at whatever it was I tripped over and dashed towards the nearest window, feeling something like a tack tug at the back of my jacket. Holding the object (which felt both firm and soft at the same time), I bashed at the window with a fearful might.
Glass shattered down, cutting into my skin like the intensifying rain. Whatever was behind me grunted, and how it sounded eerily like my name gave me the motivation I needed to hoist myself out of the broken window.
I went back to my dorm that night bloody, crying, and very wet. It was Sara who called the cops, and I was questioned for hours which just solidified the lies I told them. I was just out hiking. I just tripped. Yes, I went by the lighthouse, but I didn’t see anything. I don’t know what happened to Jake. It’s not my fault.
The search for Jacob Turner increased that night. With a vague hint that he might’ve been at that lighthouse given by me, and an affirmation given by Sara, the police combed the lighthouse with a greater fervor for the next couple of days. But I was told they found nothing but a bag of ingestible psychedelics. The search began to abate when they called Jake’s parents and they told them he suffered from severe depression and was, in fact, a heavy drug user. His disappearance was later ruled as suicide.
And I wish I could believe that.
They never found Jake’s camera. The police never found his body.
But they did find a severed arm lying in front of a broken window, covered with deep scratches much deeper than a human fingernail could produce. They are running DNA tests, but I already know. The awareness landed me in the shower, causing me to scrub Jacob off my skin while sobbing. No matter what the police find, I know Jake’s gone.
And I know I am guilty.