Min woke to the wind whistling through the cracks of the window panes and shuddered under the thin blanket, his feet numb in heavy hiking boots. Feeble rays of the sun leaked through the dense clouds heavy with the threat of rain. He shifted on the concrete floor, ignoring the aching in his joints. The layers of sweaters he had scavenged from abandoned buildings that once were clothing stores provided little warmth through the night, and since the temperature had been dropping as winter approached, he had been venturing further from the lighthouse in search of blankets. His wife and daughter could be arriving any day and they would need them.
Min pulled himself out of the makeshift sleeping space and his boots kicked up dried mud clumps as he walked to the stacks of canned beans, jars of preserved plums and jams, piles of dried fruits, and his single coveted bottle of malt whiskey. He had been saving that one to celebrate the day they arrive. It had been a lucky find, hidden inside the pantry of a decrepit house a few miles away under a layer of dust and dirt. The roof had caved in and the furniture destroyed by the brutal weather conditions, and looking around, it seemed like a young family may have lived there once. He remembered the crib crumbling in the corner of the remaining walls and the shelves swinging from their hinges in gusts of wind. They must have evacuated in a rush, he thought, as they had not only left behind the whiskey bottle but also a copy of 1984 by George Orwell still in salvageable condition, which Min brought back and spent several nights carefully piecing together the tattered pages. His wife loved to read. Before everything happened, he'd watch her read on their dining room table and wait for her to smile, dimples pressed into round pink cheeks, when she came upon a particularly well-written sentence that resonated with her. He missed them so much. He missed the way his wife's tinkling laugh would flutter around the bathroom after botching one of his monthly haircuts, and the way her fingertips traced the line of his spine as they lay on their bed after sleeping in on weekend mornings. He missed his daughter's innocent smile, dimpling like her mother, when she was caught with an empty bag of Cheetos with chili powder smeared over her lips and fingertips.
Min exhaled heavily, scanning his dwindling supply of food and supplies that he had scavenged over the past few months. He ran through a mental note of necessities he needed to collect for colder weather. Blankets, definitely. Even a rug or towel would do; he'd use that and give his blanket to his daughter, of course. Sweaters or jackets – he'd have to look again in the run-down section of Ketchikan that he had passed through many times. A kerosene heater would be perfect, but he didn't dare hope to find one. He pulled out a black bandana from his back pocket and folded it over, wrapping it around his nose and mouth. There was no mirror in the lighthouse but he imagined he resembled the thieves in crime movies he used to watch snuggled on the couch with his wife when their daughter was asleep on snowed-in Saturday nights.
He pried open the only door entering the lighthouse and immediately the icy wind sliced at the exposed skin around his eyes. Goggles, he thought, he'd need to find a pair of those. Raising an arm to shield his face, he leaned forward and dug his heels in to make his way toward the abandoned city.
There was a time when locals and tourists alike would amble up the dirt pathway toward the lighthouse to admire the view of the waves slamming against the steep rocky cliffs, or idly roam through the Sitka spruce trees and point at the bald eagle nests perched on the highest branches. Now with no one to maintain the woods surrounding the lighthouse, the underbrush had overgrown. The few deer he had glimpsed that were not yet dead were small with protruding ribs and frail legs that held them up for only minutes before they collapsed. He hadn't seen a bald eagle in months.
Before the invasion, the lighthouse was visible out the bedroom window of his two-story home, the beacon lit every night piercing through the night sky to alert mariners out at sea. The night the invaders came, Min had thrown their belongings into a backpack and took his wife, who was clutching their daughter tight to her chest, to escape into the woods. For several days they camped in a clearing among the autumn leaves far from the city. If we get separated, he had told her, we meet at the lighthouse.
One day when his wife had taken his daughter to the nearby stream to bathe, he heard the voices of men nearing their campsite. It had been too late to hide; when he looked up from the campfire they already had him surrounded, their rifles pointed at the space between his eyebrows. There were three of them, clad entirely in khaki uniforms and thick black boots with important-looking badges adorned on their chests and lapels. One of them yelled to him in a language Min did not understand. He sounded angry. I'm alone, Min had yelled back, arms extended above his head, hoping the wind would carry his voice to his wife to warn her, I live here alone.
They had kicked in his knees and dragged him behind them by the coarse rope that lashed his wrists together. Min muttered a thankful prayer that they did not search the tent, or they would have found his wife's clothes sprawled across the sleeping bag and his daughter's collection of stuffed toys in the corner.
They had still been making their way out of the woods when the bomb hit. He had been lucky. If they had been a mile closer to the city, Min would have been reduced to a mound of scorched flesh. Instead, the shock of the explosion that centered in the heart of Ketchikan had catapulted him back several feet into the trunk of the nearest spruce, rendering him unconscious.
It was the ringing in his left ear and the pain in his ribs that jarred him awake, slumped against the tree. He dragged the suffocating air thick with ash into his burning lungs, and reached to touch his left earlobe, which was gone; in its place was the hard crust of stale blood. He later discovered his eardrum had been blown out. He must have been out for hours.
Min had returned to the campsite amidst the smoke that darkened the sky, ignoring the pain rippling up and down his spine. Debris gnawed by the flames that devoured the city was drifting through the forest, resembling snowflakes. The tent, along with almost all of their belongings, was a pile of ash. Only his daughter's stuffed dinosaur was still intact, its green polyester stitching the only color among the smear of black and burnt material. He had grabbed it, and headed to the stream, but never found them. The lighthouse, he remembered, and hoped he would meet them there; they had not yet arrived. In fact, since that day, he never saw another person again. It was like humanity had vanished overnight. This had been almost half a year ago.
The buildings in the city that once sold chinchilla fur coats, Welcome to Alaska souvenirs, and slices of smoked salmon were replaced with dirt and rubble. Over the past few months, the ash had been swept away by gales that howled through the city, leaving behind cement slabs and steel beams, the remaining skeleton of Ketchikan. As Min walked briskly through the empty streets against the wind, he squinted, hoping to find something that he had overlooked on his many scavenging trips here. He stepped over the shattered glass that glinted on the concrete streets and scoured the debris. Blankets. He needed to find blankets.
A brutal gust of wind ripped through his sweater and he stumbled blindly, taking shelter behind a metal ream that once was scaffolding for a newly constructed movie theater on this corner of Main and Mission Street. He shivered and waited for the wind to die down.
As the air howling around him quieted to a murmur, Min thought he noticed something he hadn't seen before, half-buried under a pile of what may have used to be the concessions bar. He reached under a fractured concrete slab and pulled out a glass jar, a thin crack running along the side. He wiped off the dust and brought his fingertips to his lips. It tasted sweet. Caramel.
Min smiled, the corner of his lips tugging up toward hollowed cheekbones. His daughter would love this. She had a sweet tooth, and while her mother scowled at her tantrums for dessert, Min found that he could never say no to her. You're a dentist, you shouldn't be doing this, his wife's almond-shaped eyes narrowed as he handed his daughter an impressive slice of red velvet bundt cake bought on the way home from work. Min had grown up poor, a child of first-generation Chinese immigrants, and his tattered second-hand clothes donated from thrift stores only increased the bullying he faced at school for his bowl-cut black hair and slanted eyes behind oversized thick-rimmed glasses. His childhood was tainted by the feeling of shame; he was ashamed that after school he went to an empty home because his parents worked overtime on two jobs to makes ends meet, ashamed of his lunches of ‘smelly’ leftovers his mother packed that had his classmates sitting rows of tables away from him, and ashamed that he didn't have the pale skin and light hair of the other students that rode the same school bus he took home. When he came to realize his appreciation for the courage of his parents to start a life in a foreign country where they could barely speak the language in hopes of providing their only son with the opportunity of a better life, it was too late, his parents had already passed.
This was why he was determined to raise his daughter to love who she was. After she finished her school homework on the weekdays, he taught her Mandarin and on the weekends, his wife gave her lessons in Korean. On her birthday they gifted her with both a chi pao and a hanbok, and took her along the Pacific coast shoreline to take photos. She grew up eating kimchi as a side with every dish and learned to fold beautiful dumplings on the lunar new year. Min indulged her with her favorite sweets and trips to the beach, and she often followed him around the house admiring him with her deep brown eyes, and when she was tired she crawled onto his lap to take naps like a kitten.
The shadows on the abandoned city shifted slowly, the sun already fleeing behind grey clouds as the nightly fog settled in. In the colder months, daylight in Ketchikan became precious, limited to only a few hours. Min grimaced as he turned his back toward the incessant wind to return to the lighthouse. His scavenging trips lately had been unsuccessful, and with the shorter daylight, it was impossible to travel far. He steeled himself for another frigid night.
By the time Min arrived at the lighthouse, it was already dark. He tore off his bandana and stuffed it in his back pocket, the skin on his cheeks cracked and bleeding from the dry air and onslaught of the wind. He took out the jar of caramel, the glass polished from the repeated scrubbing it received on the way back, and gingerly set it on the ground next to his daughter's dinosaur plush toy rescued from the campsite. He grabbed a can of preserved peaches and paused for a moment to relish the still air around him, his overgrown hair now tangled and matted, and his muscles sore from the cold. Cracking open the lid and tipping back the can, Min swallowed a couple slices of peaches stored in their sweet juice.
He didn’t have long. It was now time to light the beacon. Min ascended metal spiral staircase in the center of the lighthouse, his heavy steps echoing off the concrete walls. When he reached the small service deck, he turned and cranked the lever. With a whirring noise the blinding light discharged from the lantern in the pane a floor above, magnified by surrounding convex Fresnel lens.
He stepped out onto the gallery and leaned against the iron railings, pulling the frigid air into his lungs. Every night he stood here, believing his wife and daughter would see the beam slicing through the darkness from wherever they were, and know that he was waiting for them. The fog had descended to carpet the ground, and he could barely make out the white foam that rose along the edges of waves crashing against the precipitous cliff. In the distance, stars blinked among a light tinge of blue-purple hues, the remnants of an aurora that did not yet reach the unconquered pitch-black sky above him. He peered toward the woods and for a moment Min's heart leaped in his ribcage as he saw two figures shifting towards him behind the veil of fog. But it was only the last breath of the wind, whirling the fallen leaves that danced in the blanketed shadows of the spruce trees before they settled back down to rest on the forest floor.