The condemned house crouches on the clifftop, hunkered low against the wind. It is a race between the local authority and the sea to see which will carry out the sentence. The water seethes below like a restless beast, swirling and eddying, worrying at the cliff walls. Chunks have already collapsed, leaving the top jutting out in places like a shelf. Inexorably the edge is inching closer and closer to the house.
The local teenagers and tourists ignore the signs warning of danger on the cliff paths in summer. The thrill of rule breaking diminishes as the temperature falls, and I can go days now without seeing a soul, except the stray cat who has adopted me. That suits me fine. I spent many years locked up with people who talked, yelled, and snored in a place which rang, clattered, and echoed. Here I read and think with nothing but the sound of the waves in the background. No television. I do have a phone but half the time there is no signal up here.
If guilt were currency, I’d be a millionaire. My kingdom was not lost for want of a horseshoe-nail, but for a fake ID which got me into the cool college crowd. The cool crowd got me into the parties. At the parties, there was a plethora of substances to convince me I was not a socially awkward loser. When I was high, I could swear that I was funny, smart, and popular and not only because I was the proverbial rich kid with a trust fund and a car. The power has already been turned off to the house. During the long winter nights, I sit in the wavering light from the oil lamp by the wood stove as the wind rattles and tugs at the house. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat, not sure if I hear the scream of the gales or of the family I killed. I get up then and sit in the darkness wrapped in a quilt. On those nights, I know that there will be no more sleep. My mind goes back to that fateful night. I had met a girl a few weeks before who miraculously liked me better sober. I had not seen the usual drinking crowd for a while. She and I bumped into some of them that evening. They were already well plastered and greeted me like a long-lost friend. Before I knew it, we had joined them in the bar. My girl did not like them, especially the ones who were past the tipsy stage and becoming obnoxious. They started laughing at her when she wanted us to leave. I brushed her off and went back to drinking. Hurt and furious, she left. I thank God she did, or she might have died too. You can imagine the rest of the story. Google wrong way crashes. It’s horrific how common they are.
That was fifteen years ago. My parents died while I was inside. When I was released, I had nowhere to go but to this old family holiday cottage. The locals know who I am, but the press interest has long died down. I am greeted with indifference when I get my supplies in the village. I suppose I’ll be evicted eventually. Meanwhile, I am as content as I can be. My only neighbor is an old eccentric, Sam. He has fought tooth and nail to prevent the authorities taking his house too. His is a little further inland than mine. He was born there, and he plans to die there. I think the authorities have finally thrown up their hands in disgust and decided it is not their problem if he wants to fall into the sea. He visits every now and then and we have a cup of tea together. We never talk about why I am here. Today he came by to tell me that he is going to spend a couple of days in town with his daughter. She is worried because of the storm which is forecast for tonight. He grumbles, but I think he is secretly pleased by her concern. He tries to persuade me to come too, but I politely decline. People do not want a killer, even an unintentional one, in their midst. It’s awkward.
Usually, I like the stormy nights. I sit in the soft light of the oil lamp and listen to the shriek of the wind, snug in the solid stone construction that has lasted a hundred years and would probably have lasted a hundred more if the ground wasn’t disappearing beneath it. I have not seen the cat for a day or two. They say animals can sense bad weather coming. I eat, clean up the kitchen and settle in my chair with a book. The wind begins to rise, driving icy drafts into every corner. Blasts of rain beat on the windows. I retreat to bed to try to stay warm. It is pitch black outside. I doze off, but jerk awake as I hear the creaking of the roof. This is different from usual. There is a screeching, tearing sound as the corrugated metal peels back like a sardine can lid and the rain pours in on me. I can see the sky where the roof is missing. I leap out of bed and stumble around in the darkness, blundering into furniture as I try to find my flashlight. It sheds barely enough weak flickering light to find my coat. I throw it on, shivering, and huddle down in the middle of the room. There is a crash as the front window blows in. I can hear the thundering of the waves below and see the salt spray fountain up over the cliff edge. There is a rhythmic knocking sound. Someone is beating on the front door, and I can hear shouting. A blast of wind almost knocks me down as I open the door. Wiping rain off my face, I discern Sam leaning against the wind and mouthing something I cannot hear. He finally grabs my arm and pulls me after him. He drags me up the hill and we stumble inside his cottage, gratefully slamming and bolting the door behind us.
We dry off and huddle close to the fire. He sips whisky. I politely refuse, so he brews tea for me. It is a long night, but the storm gradually abates, and his roof miraculously holds. He explains that he got a flat tire on the way to his daughter’s house. By the time he changed it, the storm was in full fury, and he did not want to risk driving. Returning home, he saw debris flying by. Assuming it was from my place, he decided to check on me. A pale grey light is dawning. We go to look at the cottage. Half the house has collapsed in a cascade of debris where the cliff has crumbled. Cautiously peering over the edge, I see pieces of furniture and beams bobbing in the waves below. Stunned, I let Sam guide me back to his house, where I finally break down. He waits patiently, handing me a cloth to wipe my face when I compose myself.
“You saved my life,” I say. "You could have died too. Why do you care?"
“You remind me of myself, lad,” he says. “I was young and reckless too once upon a time. I know your story. But for the grace of God, that could have been my story."
“It’s not just the house,” I say. “After what I did…”
“You've done your time,” he says. “You did a foolish thing that resulted in great harm. You can never make amends to those people who died, but you can do good in the future. You can't spend the rest of your life hiding here even if you want to. I’ll be moving on myself after this. I’m not a big enough fool to risk another storm like yon. Don’t waste the rest of your life feeling sorry for yourself. That’s adding insult to the injury you caused. You can stay with me for now until you decide what to do.”
His gruff kindness makes my tears well again.
“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you.”