Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Loneliness Or A Warm Gun

by Dwayne Bunney

Peering over the water towards the Isle of the Dead, the lighthouse keeper struck a match and lit his pipe, the tobacco sizzling in its bowl. He listened intently as the darkness recoiled from about the match's flame, and he could hear it screaming in anger, the light invading its space. The Keeper sighed a very contented but tired sigh. He closed his eyes as the tobacco soothed him. In the midst of his own private darkness, his could make out the flicker of the lighthouse lamp. But this was his darkness, not the darkness. Here he could rest from the light and the dark of the outside, those two warring factions that would never rest while there was life.

He thought of the ships leaving the Port on route to Hobart Town. No doubt the sailors on board would spend a few heady last days in Wapping before heading back to the mainland, and then quite probably back to Great Britain. It was a trek the Keeper had made himself many years before in the other direction...when he was still a convict. It wasn't the constant threat of scurvy or the cruel oppression of the army that hurt the most, it was the pain of never again being able to see his wife and child. That was a pain that never died, not even when he received his pardon from the governor of Port Arthur for rescuing the daughter of the church pastor from drowning. He was likely a grandfather now. In fact, he could sense that he was. There was some comfort in knowing his line was continuing.

The faint sound of a whip cracking immediately followed by a scream of anger indicated the guards had been drinking once again. It was confusing for some to think that he decided to take the post of Lighthouse Keeper so close to his place of hard internment, when he was free to get as far away from Port Arthur as possible. He had the whole of Van Diemen's Land to choose from to begin his new life. But he knew about the darkness. He was the only one who did. And he had to keep it in check. And his lighthouse could do it, not only by projecting the light out, but in doing so he kept the dark in. It had to be kept in. Six hours to dawn...

####

John Selkirk strode off the vessel with one goal in mind. He and his fellow seamen were going to drink, drink, find some women and do a bit more drinking. In a word, they were going to celebrate before the voyage back to Sydney, and then on again to England. He and Dylan O'Malley slapped each other on the shoulders and started mock wrestling as soon as they hit the dock. After asking a few directions and following a few obvious locals, they made their way to the Sailors' Arms, the highlight of Wapping, the party district of Hobart Town. If it wasn't for the fact it was night, John might have noticed the dark patch near the pocket of his pants...

It was early but the Sailors Arms was already in full swing. John and Dylan walked through the doors and their eyes widened with the revelry taking place.

From various corners of the bar, the eyes of ladies of the night widened at the prospect of increasing the weight of their purses with some new, young and healthy looking blood. The diseases currently concentrated in Wapping were becoming plague-like, even though they were rarely discussed.

A group of sailors from other ships stood around the pianola, singing out of tune. The effects of the rum were very obvious for both the singers, and the pianola pedaller. One of the singers caught sight of John and Dylan entering the bar.

"Come on over and join ush boysh," he slurred.

John smiled and waved but turned his attention to the bar. He'd been waiting far too long for a decent drink.

"What'll it be, gents?" asked the barman in a broad Irish accent.

John didn't hesitate. "Two pints of your best ale barkeep. I've had enough of rum for now."

The barman nodded in understanding. "Coming right up."

John turned to Dylan. "Two pints'll do me, Dyl me ol' mucker. What are you going to drink?"

"Very funny," said Dylan as he perched himself on a stool at the bar.

Out of what seemed like nowhere, a dark-haired lady of the night appeared at John's side.

"Hello sailor. I hope you'll be staying a while in Hobart Town. We've a major shortage of strong, handsome boys around here," she said as she caressed his arm.

John could hardly object. But as he revelled in the attention provided by the girl, his eye caught sight of the pint of dark ale placed in front of him.

"Excuse me, Miss, but it's been far too long. Both for beautiful creatures like you and for beautiful liquid like this."

He picked up the pint glass and took a long, refreshing gulp of the ale. Ahh, life was good. The first sup was always the best. He looked gratefully at his glass then caught sight of the redhead giving her attentions to Dylan and chuckled. The brunette tugged on his arm.

"What about a drink, mister?"

"Why of course. Is there anything you can offer me in return?"

"Bit early for that yet, isn't it?" she said with a cheeky smile.

"Of course, the night is very young, I only hope that later we...."

He stopped mid sentence, as did everyone else in the tavern. John had stopped because everyone else had stopped what they were doing. He and Dylan looked at each other somewhat confused.

The girl at his arm and everyone else were looking at the entrance to the tavern. Standing there, pipe in mouth, was a lighthouse keeper.

There was nothing unusual about him. He was old but not frail, with wisps of white hair poking out from under his battered sailor's cap. His large gumboots made next to no sound as he shuffled to a darkened corner of the bar. He took a seat. The barman took him a mug of ale.

John thought he noticed the slightest tinge of fear in the eyes of most of the patrons as they all looked at the Keeper. His girl looked nervously to the floor and back at the Keeper again while he settled himself.

The Keeper took a sip of his ale, and this seemed to be a cue for everyone to get back to their party. The pianola resumed, the singing began, and the conversation increased again to normal levels. John looked at the girl.

"What was all that about? Who is that feller?" he asked.

The girl looked nervous and didn't want to make eye contact with John. He could tell she wanted to tell him but something was stopping her. He rested a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"It's ok....I just realized I don't even know your name" he said.

She looked up at him and tried a slight smile.

"It's Mary. My name is Mary. He's..." she tried to explain once again but found it difficult.

She continued, "He's...the lighthouse keeper from Port Arthur."

"Well I thought he'd be something like that," said John with a smile. "But why did everyone stop what they were doing to watch him come into the bar. What's so special about him?"

Mary's eyes looked glassy to John for a moment. But she mustered up the courage to tell him.

"He's a ghost."

####

"A ghost?" asked John incredulously. "He's drinking ale! I don't know much about Hobart Town, but the ghosts where I come from are a bit more insubstantial that that."

Mary shrugged, "It's the only way we can describe him. He never says much and he appears here before the sailors he sees away from Port Arthur arrive here."

"So he has a fast horse and buggy?"

"No," said Mary, "It's impossible for him to arrive here that fast and anyway, the only way to get her from the port is by ship."

John glanced over to the gloomy corner of the bar to again study the Keeper. He was quietly sipping his ale but stopped to stare right back at John when he became aware he was being observed. Mary tugged at John's arm.

"Stop staring. Please. He makes me nervous." She paused to think before ending, "And sad."

John's curiosity was roused by her last comment but the ale was beginning to kick in and so was his desire for Mary. Other things apart from his curiosity were beginning to rouse.

An hour passed. Dylan and his red-headed companion had joined the singers around the pianola and were in full voice. They didn't notice the burly-looking ruffians heading in their direction. The sailor pedaling away was roughly jerked off the pianola stool and he skidded across the floor. He stood up angrily but when he saw the person who had removed him, it was fear that crept across his face.

Dylan missed this and growled at the assailant, "Here sunshine, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

John watched from the bar and tensed as he knew he would quite probably have to spring into the oncoming fight at any moment.

The pianola pedaller got up the courage to move over to Dylan and put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry mate. It's okay. Wilson here doesn't like the sound of the pianola that's all."

Wilson stretched his shoulders, making him seem taller than his already imposing six and a half feet. His weatherworn and unshaven face matched well with his unpleasant body odour. He spat a big gob of chewing tobacco at Dylan's feet, some of which splashed up on to his trousers. John noticed a small dark patch of the splash break away and move slowly up Dylan's leg.

"Cooky's right boy. I don't like that dammed box playing in my bar when I am in it," said Wilson venomously and turning to Cooky said, "And its Mister Wilson to you boy."

"Oh this is your bar is it?" said a cocky Dylan. His redheaded friend had slunk back a few paces into the shadows.

Wilson lowered his face to Dylan's and growled, "You want to make something of it, sea-legs?" Wilson's cronies gathered closer behind him, ready for the attack.

Dylan lowered his head just for a moment, and then sprang at Wilson, landing a punch to his eye before he could react.

The big man staggered back two paces, shaking his head. His cronies were quick to the defence though. One of them suffered the same treatment with a punch to the head but two others grabbed Dylan's arms. John ran across from the bar and jumped on Wilson's back, but he was an amazingly powerful man, even for his size. It only took him a moment to spin around and head butt John to the ground. The patrons were paralysed with fear of this man. No one came to help.

John managed to stay conscious but his head was spinning. He struggled to get up. Wilson was chuckling and sizing up Dylan for a knockout punch. His cronies still held on tightly to both arms. John noticed a change in Dylan's face. For some reason he stopped struggling for release. A strange darkness protruded from his eyes and a look of sadness fell across his face. But through the sadness and eerie smile formed on his lips and he began to chuckle.

Wilson did not appreciate this in the slightest. "Think this is funny, do you, sea-legs?"

Wilson let fly with a bone-crunching punch to Dylan's head. It flew back on his shoulders and sat limp at a neck-breaking angle. Just for a moment though, because to everyone's horror, Dylan raised his head, laughing.

"More please," he said in an unearthly voice.

Slightly taken aback, Wilson struggled to compose himself but said, "If you insist."

He leaned back for maximum force and let fly. In an instant, Dylan had twisted the arms of the two cronies holding him and was free. Before Wilson could deliver his blow he had grabbed the two heads and put them right in the path of the deadly punch. On impact, both me went sprawling.

Wilson blinked with confusion. Before he knew it, Dylan had broken a bottle on the side of the pianola and plunged it deep the bully's chest. Wilson let fly a blood-curdling scream, as his own blood sprayed from the wound in his heart.

John was horrified. "Dyl, stop! What are you doing, man?"

Dylan held up his free hand and glared menacingly at John. "Stay back. Or you'll be next."

As Wilson died and slumped to the floor, Dylan raised his eyed upward and let out a most horrific contented sigh. The patrons, including John, were in shock and could not move. Wilson hit the floor with a thud and Dylan surveyed the scene. He became translucent. As he faded away to nothingness, his terrifying giggle remained for a few seconds above the pianola.

As John tried to take in what he had just seen, he could sense someone standing behind him. Gasping with shock and fear he turned to face whoever it was.

"Come with me. Now," said the lighthouse keeper.

####

The sound of the police carts and their bells echoed through the streets of Wapping. News of the brawl travelled fast. Inside the inn, John Selkirk was still kneeling, eyes fixed on the Keeper in a mixture of curiosity and terror. Most of the patron's eyes were fixed on the pair too. Mary had begun to sob quietly to herself. The shock of the events that just took place was too much for her.

The Keeper became aware of the bewildered eyes surrounding him. With his hand still on John's shoulder, he raised his other. The Keeper's eyes flashed bright white and the white circled around the room, like the lamp of a lighthouse. The room and those within it became grey and still, as if frozen in time. For that in fact, is what they were.

The Keeper's attention fell back to John, who retained his colour and movement.

"Don't be afraid John Selkirk. You must come with me. We have to save your friend. You must help me."

"Who are you?" asked John suspiciously.

"I am the lighthouse keeper from Port Arthur. I would have thought someone around here would have told you that."

"They did. But, what is the truth behind the stories? How do you stop everything in here and drain the colour away. Are you a servant of Beelzeebub?"

A kind but sad smile crossed the Keeper's face and he said, "No, I'm not from the devil, at least I don't think so. If I tell you my story, will you come with me?"

Shaking with fear but his curiosity roused, John could only reply, "Yes, if that's what it takes for the truth."

The Keeper looked towards the entrance to the inn as the whistles of the police came closer. As two officers came through the door, they froze and their colour drained. He turned back to John.

"I fear you won't believe me. And in truth, I do not fully understand what happened to me myself. I was originally sent to Port Arthur from England as a convict. I had a wife and daughter, the apple of my eye, to provide for. I picked up a loaf one day without realising my pockets had been picked. For some reason the proprietor was convinced I was going to steal the bread. I made an attempt to pay for it but when I checked my pockets and found nothing there, I was accused of stealing. Before I knew it I was before the magistrate. He was not interested in my story and sentenced me to 20 years hard labour in Port Arthur."

"One night while I lay awake in my cell, I saw through my small window the most amazing display of shooting stars I had ever seen. I thought nothing more than of the beauty of it. That is of course, until I realised that the shadows of the trees swaying on the walls of my cell were joined by another shadow, a shadow with nothing casting it. Did you notice the patch of darkness on your friend's clothing? I can see that you did."

"The shadow moved towards me and I froze with fear. I could feel it entering my body, seeping through the skin. I thought the Reaper had come for me but the shadow spoke to me. It told me it had travelled a long way, from beyond as well as deep within the stars, from a place it called a 'nother die mention'. It told me it was a person just like me, with a family just like me, who were hungry just like mine. But the food his family needed was not like mine. Their food was the loneliness of men like me. I didn't understand it, but the shadow and his could only survive because of people like me. It also told me that his family were not separate like mine; they were all together in one single being. My loneliness was responsible for feeding its whole family. It told me it had never had such a feast in all its travels."

"The shadow gave me unearthly powers. Powers of speed and strength, the power of travel by thinking, and power over time. It was with these powers that I was able to rescue the daughter of the church pastor and secure my release. But my meeting with the shadow came with a curse. It knew that I was a man of principle and wronged in my sentence to Van Diemen's Land. It threatened to kill many people if I returned home to my wife and child and starved it of its food source. Only here on the other side of the world could I protect innocent men from its power. I took the loneliest position I could find, a lighthouse keeper, to keep the shadow from delivering on its promise. It became so glutted from my loneliness that it granted me leave to visit Wapping regularly and be surrounded by people once more while it digested its food. But there was a problem tonight."

John Selkirk's head was spinning with this fantastic tale, and couldn't believe there was yet more to come. "What is the problem?" he asked.

"One of the shadow's own, a child, decided to leave the family tonight. That was what you saw on your friend. It was the child of the shadow. And before you saw it on him, I saw it on you."

John's mouth dropped in horror, but he quickly regained himself.

"What did the shadow child want with us? We aren't lonely."

The Keeper continued, "The shadow child cannot judge the correct food source. Its young inclination is to violence rather than loneliness. At first it saw you wrestling on the dock, and then it latched on to the violence that took place here in the bar. We have to contain it. The father shadow is very worried at what its son might do."

John said angrily, "With all due respect, your father shadow can go hang!"

The Keeper continued, "Please John. The shadow child does not have any control. It will burn itself out but not after killing many innocent people first. You have to help me"

"What can I do?"

"You are a close friend. Mr O'Malley will respond to you. You have to distract him long enough so I can approach him unawares. The shadow father can then take hold of its son and take it back into me."

"As simple as that?"

"All we can do is try, Mr Selkirk."

"All right, then. I don't really fathom a word you have said, but let's go find Dyl."

John rose from the floor, realising he had been on his knees throughout the entire tale and moved past the frozen policemen into the outside air. The Keeper was right behind him. He turned to the bar and waved his hand in the air and the patrons seemed to be going in reverse for a second. When outside the door, the Keeper snapped his fingers and the colour and life flooded back into the bar and the patrons. Time had been taken back just a few seconds, and everyone was too dazed and confused to remember what had just happened.

"The shadow senses the child has returned to Port Arthur, as this is where it remembers seeing the most violence from the guards. We will take you back with us," said the Keeper.

Inside the bar, Mary was still shaking her head in confusion. The memory of the handsome sailor she had been escorting for the last hour of more was coming back to her. She looked around and seeing he was gone, she raced for the door to try to retain her cleanest prospect in a long time, hardly noticing the bloody mess of Wilson lying dead on the floor as patron gathered around in confusion. From the entrance she spotted her man and yelled out to him. When he paid no attention she ran towards him. Only when she was in touching distance did she realise that the man he was with was the mysterious Keeper that everyone was afraid of. The Keeper raised his hand to John's shoulder. Mary skidded into him through the mud and touched him at the precise moment that the Keeper did.

And then they were somewhere else. Mary's head spun and she fainted.

"Blimey. How the bleedin' heck did that happen?" said John to himself, shaking the cobwebs from his head. .

"Come on," said the Keeper, "we haven't got much time. You need to tell your friend you love him. "

Mary stirred and sat up, listening.

"You what? I don't tell my mates I love 'em! You must be insane as well as possessed!" John screamed in a whisper.

"It's the only way to weaken the creature within him. You must do it. Come."

The buildings of Port Arthur loomed ominously in the moonlight. From where there Keeper and John stood, they could hear the sound of a whip cracking followed by the cries of a man coming from the central barracks. They raced toward the sound.

Dylan stood peering into the barracks, a sickening look of glee on his face. The violence was feeding the shadow within him.

"Dylan?" said John from behind him.

Dylan spun round, the deep blackness beaming from his eyes.

"Dyl, it's me, John. Don't be afraid mate. I just wanna talk to you. Do you know how we got here?"

Dylan refused to speak .

The Keeper stepped forward. He spoke, but not with the Keeper's voice. It was an ethereal angelic tone.

"My son, I know why you're here. You think you can survive from the violence of the people here. But have you forgotten what I taught you?"

Dylan now replied with a similar voice. But the shadow within him was obviously younger than the one possessing the Keeper, and its voice contained an almost sulky teenage quality when it spoke.

"No, father. I haven't forgotten. But I wasn't prepared for how wonderfully filling the violent emotions of these creatures is. I think you are wrong. We should have been feeding off this, not from their unsatisfying loneliness.'

"No, son," replied father shadow, "this violence will kill you. But because you are young, you can't see it. Come. Come back to us, before it is too late."

Dylan's features betrayed a warring within him, but the shadow was far too strong. He snarled like an animal and ran into the blackness of the night.

John noticed the Keeper whispering to Mary now, a fearful expression on her face. He thought he heard the words "Trust me, please" coming from the Keeper and saw Mary cautiously nodding in agreement.

The Keeper then approached John. Placing a hand on his shoulder he said, "We must follow," and he led the way into the darkness. Mary held back as they left the area.

A blood-curdling cry howled through the night and the Keeper led the way straight towards it. Lying on the ground was a guard, blood streaming from a fatal wound in his chest. Dylan was kneeling next to the body, eyes closed and head raised upward in the ecstasy of the kill. He sensed the Keeper and John nearby and stood to face them.

The shadow father said, "My son, this must stop. We can co-exist with these creatures if we use self-control. If we do not, you will destroy innocents and you will be hunted down. Your host will be killed by their laws of justice, thus killing you."

The shadow child would have nothing of it. "No father. You are wrong. Nothing can touch me. I am invincible in this world."

As the shadow child paused , sulking once more, the Keeper lowered his head in sadness. Then springing from the darkness without warning, Mary threw her arms around Dylan and kissed him. Dylan reeled in a moment of confusion.

"What is this?" boomed the shadow child.

Mary somehow found the courage to embrace Dylan again, but this time saying, "I love you so much my darling! I will never leave you!"

The words had the effect of a punch to the stomach of Dylan and he fell back, a bewildered look on his face. The Keeper strode toward Dylan, his arms outstretched.

"John!" he yelled, "Hold your friend's arms while I return my son to us."

"But how can I hold him? He is too strong."

"The woman weakened him with her kind words. My kind gain strength through loneliness. Your friend is fighting against my son now the words have taken the loneliness away."

John grabbed hold of Dylan and the Keeper's hand disappeared inside the sailor's chest, as if fossicking for his son.

Through Dylan, the shadow child screeched, "Nooooo!!!"

And then, Dylan fell limp on the ground. A dense quiet surrounded them.

The Keeper then went on to explain that the shadow child had escaped, but he was too weak to do any more damage. He would retreat to regain strength in a dark and lonely place until he was ready to emerge and feed his greed for violence once more.

Sadness fell upon the shadow father and he decided it was time to leave this world again for the stars. He made his apologies to John, Dylan and Mary for the experience he had put them through and for the experience that was to come upon the people of Port Arthur, perhaps after their own lifetime. An understanding came over the shadow, because the loneliness and longing he felt when he saw his son was not with him, was the exact feeling he had been feeding off for all this time. He didn't like the feeling very much. Perhaps it was time to take his family and look for another food source somewhere out there beyond the stars.

John and Mary awoke the next morning in a cheap room in Wapping. They each thought of the strange dream they had each had and wondered how much they had drunk to not have been able to remember the prior night's activities.

But the biggest apology was reserved for the Keeper. The father shadow would never have carried out its threat of killing people, but it had abused the honour of this good man. And now that the father shadow had lost his own child, it now fully knew what it had done to this man. The father shadow offered one last trip before it left our world. Back to England and to his lost family.

The Keeper turned out the light for the very last time. Time at last to go home.

####

150 years later, in 1992, a simple and very lonely young man with a blank looking face and blond hair toured the Port Arthur historic site in Tasmania. He was a local, so he had been through it a few times before. His favourite part of the tour was the dark room, a solitary confinement cell with absolutely no light whatsoever able to get into it. He always tried to spend and much time as possible in there. On one of those occasions in 1992, a close observer could have seen that when he came out of the dark room, his eyes were so black that they seemed to radiate darkness. He was the loneliest person to enter that room in over 150 years, and although loneliness was not the shadow child's food of choice, it had been impossible to resist. Over the next few years, this man acquired an inheritance and travelled to some of the most violent places in the world. But it wasn't enough. He, but mainly the shadow child who had possessed him, wanted to have destruction and death in the palm of his hands. In 1993, he purchased his first semi-automatic rifle, an AR-10. For the next three years he collected more weapons to be fully prepared for when the time was right. On 28th April 1996, the man, with the shadow child egging him on, became the worst mass murderer in the history of Australia. With no concern for his own life, he was soon hunted down and shot dead while resisting arrest. The violent feast of the Port Arthur massacre that the shadow child thought would feed him instead killed him, just as his father said it would. The warm gun he insisted would sustain him, burned him out. The lesson was never learned, but it was finally realised as he faded into final blackness. It was a lesson that cost the lives of 35 innocent people.

THE END


© 2009 Dwayne Bunney

Bio: Dwayne Bunney lives in Hobart, Tasmania, not far from the site of the real Port Arthur Massacre. When not working as a bank manager he's mucking about on a local radio show, riding his Triumph, or of course, writing. He was once the President of The Doctor Who Club of Australia. At the time it was a little geeky, but now itís popular again the very same accusers of geekdom love it! Dwayne's poem The Vampires appeared in the October 2009 Aphelion.

E-mail: Dwayne Bunney

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