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D. A. Ratliff
I chuckled. As a boy, having watched American cowboy shows on television, I loved to go to the westernmost tip of England and look toward America and yell those two words, convinced that someday I would go westward to America.
Instead, I went eastward to London. My adventurous days ended not too far from where I stood. This time no boyish boast of adventure crossed my lips. Only a question whispered on the wind. “Why did you come back?”
My phone dinged, alerting me that the people I was meeting were about to arrive. I walked the path along the cliff from the First and Last House toward the Land’s End Inn, where we were meeting for lunch. I was waiting, lost in the ocean view once again, when the crunching of tires rolling on the rough parking lot pulled me away from my self-pity. My boss, Felix Jackson, had arrived, entourage in tow. His driver opened the door, and Felix, his assistant, and the company financial officer exited the car.
Felix drew a deep breath. “Love that salty air.” He motioned toward the hotel. “Come on, Gabriel, I haven’t got all day. Have to be back in London by four.”
We settled at a table overlooking the sea. Felix, in his customary fashion, ordered for everyone. He wanted fish and chips. Therefore, we ate fish and chips. He regaled us with stories about his latest golf game until the food arrived and then launched into business.
“Gabe, we got lucky that the property acquisition included the tract overlooking Bartlett Cove. I want this hotel and entertainment complex to be upscale but affordable. We need to get the average Briton here to enjoy the sea. Make the hotel look like it’s been here since the 1700s but contemporary. You know what I want.”
As the others chattered on about finances and demographics, I thought about what Felix wanted—everything. He was a hard taskmaster, relentless and driven. I’d better create the best design I have ever drawn.
Ninety minutes later, we stood in the parking lot. Felix told the others to get in the car, and he motioned me to the rough rock boundary along the parking lot. He leaned on a telescope like the one I used to look through as a boy at the First and Last House, staring at the sea before he spoke.
“Your dad was my best friend, Gabe. Grew up here, just like you.” He fell silent again, and I remained quiet while he continued to stare at the sea. “I know it’s not easy for you to come back here, and I have other architects I could put on this project, but you, you know this land. You know what it means. I want the development in good hands, and you are the best hands I know.”
“Thank you for your faith in me, Felix. I have to admit, coming back here after all these years is a bit unnerving, but I can do this.”
Felix squeezed my shoulder. “I know you can. That’s why you’re here.” He exhaled sharply. “The beach huts. I want you to restore them to their old glory. Not worried about the expense there, I want those huts the way we remembered them.”
“I can do that.”
He nodded and got into the car, his boisterousness returning. I laughed. I had known Felix, or Uncle Felix, as I called him when young, all of my life. When my dad died, he was the anchor that kept my mom and me going, moved us to London, gave my mother a great job, and helped me through Cambridge. A couple of years before the move, he had been our anchor as well when our world fell apart. All his bravado was a façade, a negotiating tactic that served him well, but the man I knew was kind and generous. I had to create the complex he wanted, and I would do it.
Before heading to the building site, I strolled around the Land’s End visitors center complex where the hotel was. The touristy feel was not what Felix wanted, but I hated to tell him this was all about tourists. I took photos for reference and realized I was procrastinating. I needed to see the beach huts, but anxiety that I hadn’t experienced in years crept into my soul. Come on, Gabe, you’re an adult now. You can do this. At least, I kept telling myself I could.
Bartlett Cove had been a local secret for years. Its broad, secluded beach was tucked in a horseshoe-shaped promontory and usually uncrowded. My family lived in nearby Penzance, as had Felix’s family. We spent hours at the cove in the summer, fishing or relaxing on the beach. Pop bought a beach hut there, and it was one of the few in England licensed for overnight stays. The hut owners had gone together to build a bathhouse and provide electricity for lights and cooking.
A barrier sat across the narrow road leading to the huts, broken asphalt and potholes scattered over the section I could see. I parked along the main road where Pop had always parked and hiked the rough path down the cliff. Rooftops were barely visible as I followed the road dropping to mid-cliff, where the beach huts sat on a clearing overlooking the cove. Wooden steps, now in disrepair, and a worn rocky path overgrown with weeds led down the lower cliff wall to the beach. As the road leveled out in front of the huts, memories of the fun we had ‘camping out,’ as my Mum called it, filled my head.
My knees were wobbly and my heart pounding as the tiny beach houses came into view. The huts, once sixteen in number, lined up along the path. Debris from one collapsed structure peeked through overgrown weeds, but it was the pale blue hut with the small, slatted windows that held my gaze, my family’s hut.
I pulled my phone out to take pictures for reference when I returned to London. I was here to work, not reminisce. I walked along the row, stopping before the hut Felix’s family owned but found myself looking over my shoulder toward my family’s hut. My hut, I supposed. When the Cornwall government sold the land to Felix, he handed me the deed to the small plot of land the hut sat on as a gift.
After documenting the buildings, including the bathhouse, I turned my attention to the beach. I sat on a huge boulder that marked the trail down the cliff to the sandy beach. Over the wind, I could hear Danny’s voice urging me to follow him down when I was so small that the steep incline frightened me.
I had forced his memory as far away from me as I could. My older brother, my hero, was gone in the blink of an eye. An icy dagger ripped through my chest. I shouldn’t have come here. I should have told Felix no, that I couldn’t run this project, not in this place. But I knew I couldn’t tell him that, not after all he had done for us.
I glanced at my watch. There was a couple of hours of daylight left, and I needed to drive through the property. I planned to stay a week, as I had scheduled surveyors and geologists. Felix had grandiose plans for his resort. Make it look as if it had been there since the 1700s but make it like Vegas. I scoffed. Sure, I could do that.
My skin prickled. A sensation that I wasn’t alone crept over me. I stood, turning toward the line of huts, and noticed the abandoned lighthouse on top of the cliff, a sentinel watching over the cove. Movement caught my eye, and as I was about to take a photo of it, I saw a figure standing on the lighthouse walkway. For a fleeting moment, I thought it was Danny, but then how could it be. Danny was dead.
I returned to the Inn where I was staying. After taking a quick shower, I headed to dinner, ate, then drank a couple of pints and watched a soccer match with a group of American tourists.
Back in my room, I decided to jot down some ideas and scrolled through my photos. When I came to the lighthouse image, I froze. I had seen someone standing on the walkway, but there was no one in the photo. A trick of light? Maybe, but it seemed real at the time.
A couple of hours later, as I drifted to sleep, images of Danny flitted about my memories. I wondered what he would look like today. He would be thirty-six, four years older than me. But he was dead.
The survey team and I spent a long day walking two tracts on the property. That evening, I treated them to a meal at the hotel. During dinner, I showed the beach hut photos to the surveyors as we planned to go there the next day. An involuntary shiver spread down my spine when I came to the lighthouse photo. I know that I saw a person standing on the gallery walkway. How could they vanish so quickly?
The crew wanted to spend the evening watching a football match, but I was far too restless. I left the hotel and walked aimlessly around the complex, the shops now closed, then turned onto the path toward the First and Last House. It was early July, and the sun wouldn’t set for at least another hour. I wasn’t sure if going to the headland was rational, but I couldn’t make myself turn around. Perhaps, it was time to face my demons.
The gift shop had closed as the tourists, save the ones staying at the hotel, departed before dark. With only the rumble of the surf striking the rocks below, I found the silence unnerving and comforting at the same time. I sat down on a bench facing the cliff edge where it happened.
It was midday. I was eight, Danny was twelve, and we had ridden our bikes to the western headland. The shop was the only building in the area back then, not far from the cove, and sold ice cream, quite the lure for two young boys.
Danny was the first to start yelling “Westward Ho” to the wind. We vowed we were Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, the Maverick brothers, Trampas and the Virginian. As I sat there, I could hear him laughing, saying he was going to America and become a gambler.
That Saturday, I asked him how far it was to the ocean from where we stood. He told me to wait where I was, and he would look. He walked to the edge and turned toward me, smiling. The last words he said were, “It’s a long way, Gabe.” He turned back, and the rocks beneath his feet gave way, and he disappeared. Danny was gone.
Everything was a blur after that. I ran into the shop screaming that Danny had fallen over the edge. I remembered the adults trying to help, the police coming, the water rescue boats showing up, finding his body. I remember the pain on my parents’ faces as they arrived, my father repeating my Danny boy over and over. I kept telling them it was my fault, my fault. They kept assuring me that it wasn’t, but I knew it was. He died doing something for me.
I stared at the spot where he fell, tears streaming down my cheeks. My chest ached from the grief welling up inside me, and I sobbed as I did that day.
When I managed to compose myself, I realized it was getting dark, and I should return to the hotel. I took a deep breath and swore I would not come back here. As I started up the path, it was just dark enough that I turned on my mobile phone light, but I looked over my shoulder at the headland before I left.
He was there. Danny. I saw him, but he looked older somehow. I turned, running toward him… what? He was gone. I dropped to my knees. He was gone.
I woke up groggy and in dire need of coffee. Dreams—no, nightmares—filled my sleep and my head was pounding. I needed a shower, and as I stepped under the spray, my mobile rang—my mum. I heard the concern in her voice as she left a message and knew I couldn’t talk to her. She hadn’t wanted me to come.
Ignoring her, I showered, dressed, and grabbed coffee in the lobby. The surveyors were to meet me at the huts. As much as I didn’t want to go, I had a job to do. I pushed the images of my brother out of my head. He’s not there.
The survey crew finished their job around six p.m. I was tired, hungry, and couldn’t shake the unease that crept into my bones. We had climbed down the cliff to determine the slope and distance from the cliff to the beach. I looked up toward the huts and thought I saw Danny again on the lighthouse walk. I refused to believe it.
I packed my gear and started to follow the crew out, but a nagging need kept me there. I wanted to go inside our old hut. The padlock that my father had used on the double doors was long gone. I pulled the weeds blocking the doors and tugged one door open. The windows had broken out, and piles of leaves from the sparse grove of trees on the cliff had drifted inside, carpeting the floor. The broken frames of the tri-bunk beds lined the rear wall. I waded through the pile of leaves and touched the top bunk, nestled under the roof pitch. I always slept on top, and my dad put a porthole in the wall so I could see the stars at night.
I leaned against the wall, remembering my parents sleeping on the bottom bunk, the trundle bed pulled out for my dad to sleep. With only a small cook stove and an old refrigerator that barely kept food cold, we roughed it on the weekends. We loved every second spent there—rain or sun, hot or cold. It was always fun.
It wasn’t fun now. I pushed my thoughts to the task at hand. I needed to see if the huts were structurally sound to renovate or be demolished and rebuilt. I stepped into the fresh air, and as I closed the door behind me, I wondered if it might be better if I tore the huts down.
I shivered. The temperature had dropped, and increasing winds blew sand off the beach, but the uneasiness I felt was not from the chill. I sensed a presence, but there was no one in any direction. I was beginning to believe I was losing my mind. This was a mistake. I would design the complex for Felix, but he would have to assign another construction director. I didn’t want to return.
Time to go. I had completed what I needed to do for now and was hungry and wanted a drink. I started up the path when I heard a voice. My legs refused to move, and I couldn’t force myself to breathe. Adrenaline flushed through my body. The voice—the voice was Danny’s.
“Gabe, turn around.”
I pivoted slowly, fear rising in my chest. In front of me stood a man, not a boy, but I knew it was Danny.
My voice broke with each word. “Danny? Is it you?”
The figure standing in front of me smiled. “It is.”
“How—how? I never believed in ghosts… how?”
“I’m not a ghost, Gabe. I’m an angel.”
“Come sit on the rocks with me.”
He reached for my arm, and I felt his touch. It stung, and I jerked my arm away. “You can’t be Danny. You are too old… I…”
“Sit, and I will explain.”
Numb, I followed his instruction and sat. He sat next to me. “I know this is unsettling. I took this form because you imagined me as an adult, and appearing to you this way is easier than seeing me as the twelve-year-old when I died.”
I choked back a sob. “You did die. How are you here? An angel? I don’t understand.”
Danny chuckled. “It’s kind of cool. If you die as a child, you become an angel, it’s just the way it is. When I realized you were coming here, I decided that it was time to reveal myself.”
“I’ve been tied to this area, waiting for you to return. I knew our mother had come to terms with what happened and with our father’s death.”
I interrupted. “You know all that?”
“Yes, we angels know a lot.”
“How did you know I would return?”
“I know you blame yourself and that you have not returned because you feel responsible for my death. That isn’t true. My death was an accident.”
“But I asked you how far down it was to the ocean. You did….”
“I did it because I wanted to know too. Pops always warned me about going to the edge. I knew better, and I didn’t listen.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“No, it’s true. I have stayed, tied to this place since I died, waiting for you to come so I could tell you that. You have to release the pain, Gabe, and accept my death. It is how you heal and go on with your life. You have the opportunity to make things better for everyone who comes here. You need to do this project.”
“I don’t think I can forgive myself.”
“You can, and by doing so, you will release me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your pain has kept me here and prevented me from serving others. I’m a guardian angel but tied only to you and Mum. I will continue to be your guardian and Mum’s, but others need me for protection. You have nothing to forgive yourself for, Gabe.”
“Danny…” I stopped. A feeling of warmth spread over me, and I realized that Danny was right. I had to let go of my guilt. As if he sensed it, an aura appeared around my brother.
“Yes, Gabe, it is time to let go.”
As the glow around Danny shimmered, I reached for him, feeling a tingling sensation against my hand. “Will I see you again?”
“Yes, you will. I want to see what you build here. I love you and Mum, Gabe. Never forget that, and as for Pops, he has gone on to the other realm and is happy. You will see him again.”
As Danny faded from view, I felt contentment wash over me. A feeling I lost so many years before. I looked toward the western headland at sunset and, for once, was at peace.
As I walked to my car, ideas for the resort filled my head, including a tribute to an Old West gambler for Danny Boy.
Please visit Deborah on her blog: https://daratliffauthor.wordpress.com/