A MERE FIFTY-TWO POUNDS, FOUR-FEET-two-inches tall, brown eyed and brown haired, nine-year-old Jonathan Jeffers thought he was the loneliest boy on Earth.
He lived with his father, James, and his mother, Mabel, in a red-painted cottage on Clementine Rock, near Three Fathom Shoal and Persiphone Reef, next to an old white-painted brick lighthouse, nineteen miles off the coast of California.
He had a big brown-and-black dog named Smacks, a dog of many breeds. They were constant companions, as Jon desperately needed a friend. Smacks served him as best he could just by being there.
All night and on foggy days, the strong beam of the lighthouse went around and around, warning ships to stay away from the rock, the shoal, and the reef. The light was powered by a big generator, and Jon's father, a boatswain mate first class in the United States Coast Guard-or bosun-was the keeper. On a clear night, the light could be seen from passing ships twenty-two miles away.
When the heavy, cold mists rolled in toward San Francisco, which was to the north of Clementine, the hoarse foghorn also bellowed. Hour after hour. Sometimes day after day. AHHHHHH-RURH-RRRR-AAAA- AAAATS.
It sounded like "Ah, rats" to Jon, who had a strong oval face and an imagination as broad as the sweep of the light.
He hated the fog and the "Ah, rats" horn. And he didn't exactly like the seals that barked most of the day on the outlying rocks, either.
On the nights when the eaves were dripping and the horn was blowing, Jon sometimes thought of the famous Ghosts of Clementine. The rock was named after the sailing ship that had crashed into it in 1850. The ship had been bound for San Francisco, carrying Chinese workers from Canton to build railroads.
All of the 129 men had died, and their ghosts were still around the rock, or so Jon had been told by an older girl, Eunice Jones, the daughter in the Coast Guard family the Jeffers had replaced. Eunice was thirteen, tall for her age, and skinny as spaghetti. She knew the rock's history. She'd said that when the gray fog blanket was thick, the ghosts rose out of the sea and climbed up the steep sides of Clementine, which was shaped like a long high box with coarse grass on top. The sodden ghosts moaned in sorrow as they climbed. Jon had had some horrendous dreams as the result of Eunice's stories and that deep-throated foghorn.
Eunice had said she'd met some of the "living-dead" ghosts herself and that Jon would likely meet a few as well. They were spooky but pitiful and harmless, and they lived under the rock, she'd said. Jon had thought Eunice was a little spooky herself. She had long fingers and lisped.
There also were ghosts of shipwrecked sailors out at Three Fathom Shoal and Persiphone Reef, Eunice had told him. The rusted prow of a steel ship still rode the reef, sticking up like an open shark's jaw, water washing over it. Altogether more than three hundred people had died on the rock, the shoal, and the reef before the government had erected the lighthouse sixty years ago.
Jon's mother and father said that the ghosts were utter nonsense. Ghosts do not exist, they said. Ghosts do not swim, they said. And they do not live under the rock.
Jon tried to believe them, but on some nights, when the horn went silent for its programmed thirty seconds, Jon thought he heard the ghosts moaning and was afraid to peer out his window into the rolls of thick mist. Perhaps a dripping, pitiful Chinese face would be there, staring in at him. Even Smacks seemed nervous on these occasions.
His father said, "Jon, don't let your imagination hear sounds that aren't there."
But Jon's problem was his ears, not his imagination. His hearing was too sharp and the sounds seemed too real, so he wrapped his head with his pillow those nights and shivered, hoping the ghosts wouldn't come in.
Eunice had said he would go crazy out there.
Maybe he would go crazy. His father had to serve three years on the rock. One year had gone by so far.
Jon did have things to keep him occupied. He'd gone through primary school in San Francisco, and now his mother taught him five mornings a week, with textbooks and exams from the mainland. They also had a radio, and after he listened to the many programs, Jon had dreams that carried him around the globe. New York, London, Tokyo, Paris. Anywhere but Clementine. Anywhere!
To amuse himself during his free daylight hours, Jon kept an eye out for big ships passing Clementine Light. He'd run up to the tower, Smacks at his heels, and watch them through his father's powerful telescope. If they came close enough, Jon would wave and record their names in his logbook. Anything to entertain himself. Anything to stay busy.
In good weather, private planes on Sunday joyrides would come out from shore and circle the lighthouse. Jon would again run to the light platform and wave. The pilots would often wave back. The open-cockpit biplanes were his favorite. Jon also built model airplanes, mostly World War I fighters, to pass the time and take his mind off the Clementine ghosts.
Copyright © 2002 by Theodore Taylor
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