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Mr. Chatterton's Plight
Mr. Chatterton owned a lighthouse— not the kind that calls in boats on nights without light from the moon, no, but a house like most along the street. Certainly nothing was strange about it. Each house in the row where it stood looked very much the same, each two stories tall with a gaping front porch on the bottom as if a giant had drug a club along and knocked each house in turn.
It was during an afternoon in June that something changed. Mr. Chatterton could feel it in the air-- in the air in his house and outside-- there was an unrestfulness about. For the rest of the day, he squinted out the windows, unsure of what the feeling might do. But then—
A rap on his door. Only a few knuckles, small thin bones connecting with his oak wood. He knew it was only a child, but his squab body shook as he reached out a finger to turn the handle.
“Mister, could we come in?” There were two children, each with a face set afire with hopefulness. These looked like pleasant children to Mr. Chatterton, their cheeks warm in the summer heat and breaths rosy from racing.
“Yes,” he mumbled. What harm could these children cause? “Come in.”
They scrambled into the hallway. Mr. Chatterton stood with his eyes puffy and drawn into the shape of lemons. “Here for the lighthouse? Is that it? What’re your names?” he asked.
“I’m Ray,” announced the oldest, “and”—he flung his hand in the direction of the other child—“she’s Eva.”
Eva was Mr. Chatterton’s mother’s name, he knew, and this was a comfort to him. He squinted at the pair. “All right,” he decided, “come with me. They turned into the black musty depths on the bottom floor where Mr. Chatterton stood silently in the dark. He clasped his hands in front of his chin.
“Aren’t you going to turn on the lights?” asked Ray.
“Of course,” said Mr. Chatterton, and he grinned in the dark, all the way to the switches, which he flipped and snapped in sharp movements. “Here,” he cried, “is the lighthouse!” And the lights burst on, clothing the room in a pale electric glow which lit up the children’s faces. Eva gasped, her small lips parted.
“It’s my life’s work!” cheered Mr. Chatterton. ”I worked making light bulbs for years, fashioning the wire filaments, drawing them through diamond dies, cutting the coil and steel. It’s a work of art. These bulbs I made myself, every last one, and now they light my basement when there’s not a bit of light outside. It’s much better than outside light, much stronger, much purer. There is glory in a light bulb, see?” He drew his fingers over the glass of a lighted sphere hanging from the wall.
Ray was aghast. “Don’t they sting your eyes? They’re so strong. . .”
“The strongest.” Mr. Chatterton drew in a great breath that stuck his chest out. “Powerful, they are. Like an army down here. I come every day. If you’re tired of the outside world, come down and flick them on. That’s right. Brighter than the sun, I say! I’d light the whole world this way, if there were a chance. It’s a better way.”
“I don’t know.” The boy’s eyes shifted around to at the clustered glass. “You wouldn’t rather go outside?”
“No, you don’t understand!” Mr. Chatterton barked. “This is a masterpiece! Look at them all! This is the new world, with light. When the night shuts over the world, we will light it this way.” He then saw Eva’s face. “You don’t understand!” he cried. “You”—he pounded the wall—“are the future! Lights are the future! Is it that you prefer the dark? Good God, good God!” His face was drawn up in a sour bag of skin, cheeks scrunched up into his eyes. “You’ll ruin everything!” He started toward them, his body shaking in angst. “Wake up! Don’t you see? The world will die, and these will be the sun!” His throat flexed as he marched between the rows of light on the floor. “The sun,” he chanted, “will be the lights!”
Eva backed against the wall betwixt the bulbs screaming in electric fury. They sobbed, on the ceiling and the walls and the floor for Mr. Chatterton or the artificial world, painful things, painful things! Mr. Chatterton yelped and shot into the air as a light bulb shattered at his feet, cutting the air with glass and sprinkling him in shards like salt from a shaker, then—
Crack! Light bulbs exploded in splinters lost in the air, burst in mountains of heat and pressure pushing on the walls, expanding them in foul-scented flames that licked at the children’s heels. Eva pulled Ray up the stairs, Ray calling behind her, “Mr. Chatterton. . .”
The fire department rushed to the scene in its red truck and yellow suits as the flames ate their way through the living room. In ran five firefighters spouting a hose on their shoulders. “Are you alright?” Outside, a paramedic pressed his palms onto the sides of Eva’s shoulders and looked up at Ray.
Ray stood to the side, not looking back at the burning lighthouse. “It was the light bulbs! Mr. Chatterton was showing us the lighthouse and they all just”—he waved his hands about—“just. . .”
At that moment the roof fell in over the living room, spewing sparks from the fire’s mouth. The paramedic ran to several other observers in blue uniform, and whispered violently to them, nearly jumping up and down to prove his point. So the children couldn’t hear, he shouted quietly, “That’s what they said! Chatterton’s still in there.”
“No chance.” Another paramedic shook his head dubiously. “He’d be dead, and that man was a genius. I can’t believe it.”
They all stood and watched as the house crumbled slowly, the porch supports withering and sagging to the ground. As the last wall fell, the crowd saw the firefighters stepping out of the rubble, their feet dragging like the hose behind them. They said nothing, only, moving slowly, disassembled the hose and took off their helmets. Not a person moved as the truck rumbled, drove off into the clear afternoon.
A few workers stood up, a taller one assured the crowd. “All right, go on. We’re goin’ ‘a have a team over here tomorrow to clean this up.” He looked at the rubble, then asked, “Does anyone know if he had family?”
A woman from the back of the crowd spoke. “He didn’t have any children.” People mumbled unheard things, and started to disperse as workers sunk rods into the ground and wound tape around the remains still smouldering with ash that climbed to the sun with its light so soft and natural. . .