One Night on the Island
Karl Gregory was not sure exactly when his perception of the world around him began to change. He and his wife Nikki had been living on the island for nearly six months, long enough for him to fall, almost imperceptibly at first, under the spell of the place, the persistent feeling that he was moving through a dream. The sun was too bright, the shade too cool, the colors startling in their vibrancy. Along the shadowy, winding roads, enormous live oaks trailed long green wizard beards of moss in the sea wind, their trunks eight feet across, trees that were already old when the Spanish had first arrived. Great white egrets fished the shallows on the bay side, stepping carefully, necks bent, punctuating the brackish shoreline like a series of question marks. You can’t confront sights like this every day, Karl told himself afterwards, without being drawn into a world of nuance and suggestion.
On the evening in question, just as the light was beginning to fade, Karl and Nikki sat under the redbud trees on the patio of Le Fin du Monde. Two gulls glided past overhead, suspended against the clear blue sky like shapes on a mobile, and the shadows of wings flowed across a sunlit wall. Karl paid the tab, and the two of them wandered out together into the narrow lanes of the historical district. Shadows lengthened over the old brick streets. A painted horse from a merry-go-round, its front hooves raised, lunged at them from the carved front porch of a Queen Anne home, a fragment from a summer lost for a hundred years.
Feeling the spell, the dreaminess and slow weight of the place, Karl and Nikki let their steps take them down to the marina. By the time they arrived, the sun, a gold doubloon, was about to drop into its slot in the bay. The noses of the sailboats pointed north toward Georgia, their masts and the towering shapes of slash pines on the far shore silhouetted against the pinks and oranges of sunset. Bats looped and veered over their heads, tracing their indecipherable script against the twilight. In an instant the sun was down, and Karl and Nikki were left with the blue and gray watercolor wash of the evening sky, the night’s first hint of coolness coming on.
Turning from the bay, intending to find their way back to their car, they were met with an unexpected sight.
The old part of town lies on low ground that slopes downhill from Tenth Street to the bay. A wall of dense white fog was billowing and tumbling steadily downhill toward them. A crow called hoarsely, the same note over and over, from the crown of a royal palm just uphill; then, in an instant, the palm and the dark, ragged shape of the bird had vanished, leaving only a voice calling eerily from the mist. The white fog reached them where they stood, wrapping them in damp, sea-scented rags and blurring the outlines of the water-darkened warehouses. It erased the anthropomorphic shapes of cedars and oaks along the shore and spilled out over the glassy surface of the bay.
As Karl knew, it’s not unusual for an autumn fog to blow in from the sea in advance of a front, but generally not this thick, this obliterating. Nikki shivered, crossing her arms over the front of her thin silk blouse, and he draped an arm around her to keep her warm.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s find the car.”
They had gone a block or so, picking their way carefully across the damp brick road slick from the mist, careful of Nikki’s stiletto heels, when they saw light spilling from the doorway of a warehouse. A wooden sign hung from a chain over the entrance, the words barely discernable in the fog: The Harborside Inn, Est. 1865.
“I thought that place was closed,” Karl said.
“They are.” Nikki shrugged. “They were. I guess they reopened.”
Fingers of mist clutched at the weathered brick and woodwork.
Curious, they crossed the street, and Karl held the door open for Nikki and followed her in. The room they entered was the bar. Karl was nearly overwhelmed by the piercing smell of damp mold; he glanced over at Nikki, but she seemed not to notice. The bartender, a pale young woman with long dark hair, thin hair, stared at them with her black eyes from behind the expanse of a marble-topped wooden bar with a tarnished brass foot-rail. Four patrons, backs turned, occupied the barstools, contemplating their drinks. They looked to Karl like buzzards hunched over roadkill. No one moved. A candle gleamed on each of six empty tables.
“My god,” Nikki breathed, “the candlelight! It’s gorgeous.”
That wasn’t the word that Karl would’ve used. The candlelight painted the walls with a dark, shifting phosphorescence. Looking around the room, he realized that not a single electric light was burning. He pushed away his uneasiness and managed a smile.
A young man stood stiffly by the entrance to an adjoining room. From the white apron tied around his waist and the napkin draped neatly over one crooked arm, Karl inferred that this was a waiter. He looked like a figure from a wax museum posed against the wall. No had made a move in their direction since they entered, so Karl took it upon himself to approach the silent, abstracted young man.
“Dinner for two,” he said.
The waiter seemed not to hear. He continued to stare blankly ahead, as if he were counting the bricks in the wall facing him across the room. The man’s lack of affect was inexplicable, threatening somehow. Karl felt his uneasiness crowding back; it snarled at his side like a guard dog, demanding attention, and he clutched at his growing impatience to shove it away.
“Dinner for two,” he repeated. “Unless, of course, I’m bothering you. You are serving dinner, aren’t you?”
That seemed to wake him up. The young man turned abruptly and swung into the dining room, still not speaking. With an exaggerated bow and flourish, Karl signaled for Nikki to follow, and he fell in line behind her. Her gold hair glowed in the shadows like a torch in the underworld. The waiter led them to a table and stepped off into darkness. Karl pulled out Nikki’s chair, then settled across from her. A single candle in a glass jar burned between them, the flames casting quick shapes across the exposed beams above their heads, making a flickering, inconstant light. A few single patrons sat at the darkened tables, as silent and unmoving as the drinkers in the other room.
“This is charming,” Nikki said.
He thought at first that she was kidding.
“Really?” he asked. “And what about our waiter? Do you think he’s charming?”
As if summoned, the man appeared suddenly at their table, the candle casting light across his pale, angular features. He handed them each a single-page handwritten menu and stepped away again without a word.
“Maybe he’s just shy,” Nikki offered.
The waiter returned and took their order, nodding slightly, solemnly, at each choice. A few moments later, when the first course arrived, Karl was cheered to find that his French onion soup was good – rich and flavorful, not over-salted, and most importantly, hot. It took some of the chill out of the damp, musty dining room. Across from him, Nikki gave herself over happily to her salad. She lifted her fork, and the gold bracelet slid down her sun-colored arm. She made him feel, as usual, that the world was a safe place after all, and he told himself to relax, that he’d been imagining things.
But when their waiter returned to clear their plates, Karl’s dread crashed down on him with a new force. He smelled dust, so thick he could nearly taste it, and another smell, far worse, underneath. His stomach turned, he felt cold and feverish, and he thought for a moment that he was going to be sick. Then his eye fell on the waiter’s hand in the flickering light – the long fingers fleshless, the nails ragged and black-rimmed, as if the man had clawed his way out of the earth. Karl stared at the sallow, emaciated hand that closed on his plate, trying to comprehend what he was seeing. The man froze for a moment, and Karl looked up to find the waiter’s eyes, bloodshot and unblinking, staring coldly back at his. A faint smile curled at the edge of his thin mouth.
Again he turned and tipped away into the shadows. Shaken, Karl watched him vanish, wracking his brain for an explanation. His suspicions were irrational, wild, impossible – but he found them difficult to ignore. To make matters worse, Nikki showed no sign of uneasiness, and this intensified his doubt and uncertainty. A terrible isolation, a feeling of unreality, washed over him. Was he losing his mind? When the next course arrived, Nikki continued to address her meal with obvious relish, laughing and joking, apparently unaware of his struggle. The sweat stood out on his forehead. It took every ounce of Karl Gregory’s considerable willpower to remain seated and make a show of eating.
Somehow, he managed to get through the meal, but when it was over Karl was anxious to leave as quickly as possible. He’d had enough of that cold, dark dining room and its silent, brooding attendants. He glanced around again, looking for their waiter, and found him stepping unsteadily toward them through the flickering shadows. This time, he brought two glasses and a dusty bottle on a tray. Arriving at their table, he poured a measure into each snifter, placed them and the bill on the table, and withdrew.
Karl lifted a glass to his nose, and the alcohol fumes swam up into his head. The pale, amber-colored liquid had the scent of something that had rested in an oak barrel for a long time; it left thick trails of glycerin on the side of the glass.
“What is it?” Nikki asked.
“Brandy. Cognac, I think.”
He drained his glass greedily.
Nikki wrinkled her nose. “I hate that stuff. You can have mine, too, if you want it.”
He did. The brandy was very old and smooth, cold and fiery at once: it warmed him and restored his self-possession. Casually, he turned over the bill. It was written on parchment in fountain pen, the ink imperfectly blotted: three dollars and forty-two cents…
The room began to swim, the shadows flowing, spinning, making him dizzy. Karl clutched at the table with both hands to stop the motion. His stomach turned. He tasted the bile rising in his throat and swallowed hard, fighting it down, telling himself he needed to stay in control. Feeling observed, he turned in his chair to find the wax-figure waiter standing in the middle of the room behind their table. As Karl watched, the barmaid stepped forward out of the shadows and stood beside the silent, fixated waiter, her black eyes meeting Karl’s shocked, uncomprehending stare. Beneath her long, thin hair, he caught this time the white gleam of the bone. Before he could react, a chair scraped, then another, another, and one by one the solitary diners rose and stood behind the silent, accusing couple. He couldn’t see their features, but they were turned menacingly toward him.
Karl was sweating again, shaking uncontrollably, could barely breathe. If those shuffling, animated mannequins closed in around him, offering no escape, stinking of dust and rot, he was certain that something in him would break.
He stood, hands shaking, reached for his wallet, and then thought better of it.
“Let’s go,” he said to Nikki.
Putting himself between her and them, Karl steered Nikki out of the dining room, through the deserted bar, and out to the open street. Once outside, he took a deep breath, then another, purposefully filling his lungs with the cool, damp air. The shapes of black warehouses loomed above them in the swirling mist. He had the vivid, momentary perception that they were standing on the bottom of a murky sea, miles under water. Behind them, down along the bay, Karl heard bells clanging as the train pulled into the depot, the train that used to cross the state to Cedar Key, the one that hadn’t run in over eighty years. As he stared back over his shoulder, perplexed, a tall figure in an overcoat, dark, a man, stumbled clumsily forward. They watched as the man lurched past and disappeared in the fog.
“He could barely stay on his feet,” Nikki said. “Was he drunk?’
The smell of decay trailed after him. Karl hesitated a moment; and then, “Yeah,” he said. “I guess so.”
He could hear, all around them in the blank, annihilating fog, the sliding of boots shuffling closer over the damp bricks. He tried to count, but he couldn’t tell how many. Sound was distorted, his sense of direction confused. For a moment Karl was uncertain, cold, immobile with fear. If only they could get uphill, out of this damn fog, he’d be able to think straight. Needing to act, to do something, he put his arm around Nikki and hurried her without speaking toward their waiting car.
James Ulmer’s collection of ghost stories, The Fire Doll, published in 2017, was awarded the George Garrett Fiction Prize from Texas Review Press. A previous collection, The Secret Life, was published by Halcyon Press in 2012. Ulmer’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, The North American Review, The Missouri Review, Crazyhorse, New Letters, The Antioch Review, and elsewhere. He is currently Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Southern Arkansas University.