As John walked up the track towards Liskay Point, he could feel his stomach churning. Last time he had walked this way he was full of hope and anticipation. Now he knew what he was going to see when he got there, but it didn't make it any easier. He had not heard from Ellie since the rescue, but once he was back on his feet again (though still with a slight limp) he had asked his father for a few days leave and made the journey to Mull.
He approached the ruined cottage, or at least, what remained of it, and looked inside. Only the front wall and one side wall remained, the other two walls and all interior partitions and floors having been consumed in the fire that had killed the family.
The dried stalks of the flowers he had left on his last visit lay untouched in the doorway. No-one ever came here. His feet crunched on broken roof tiles and pieces of timber as he stepped inside, looking at the remains of the family's possessions. He guessed it had not been worth the effort of clearing out a building that was destined to remain a ruin. John had seen many burnt-out dwellings in his years of rescue work and could recognise the remains of a few items of furniture – the carcase of an easy chair, the iron frame of a bed that had fallen through from the floor above.
A large metal case caught his eye where it lay at an angle in a pile of rubble. 'Ellie's radio?' He approached it, casting a practised eye over the smashed dials and switches on the front. Ellie had told him that the radio had belonged to her grandfather, but he guessed it had not been new even then – the style seemed to date from at least a hundred years ago. Radios had been a hobby of John's since his schooldays. He had made his first crystal set in his early teens, then, wanting to be able to transmit as well as receive messages, had moved on to the modern equivalent of this device. He could still remember his delight when he had first managed to communicate with other enthusiasts some distance away.
His professional curiosity intrigued, he pulled the case down so it was resting the right way up on the littered floor. Crouching down in front of it, he wrestled with the catches that opened the front and peered inside. Yes, definitely from the mid to late twentieth century, judging from the components. His attention was caught by a small metal object, about the size of a matchbox. The tuning crystal block seemed to have a faint glow around it. He reached in and touched it, pulling his hand back when he found it was warm.
Almost as if….
Oh my God.
As if it was alive.
He sat back on his heels, his mind reeling. Ellie had told him, during one of their many conversations, that she kept the radio in the loft, where her younger brothers were not allowed to go, and would go up there at night to talk to people around the world. The newspaper report of the inquest had said that the fire had started downstairs after the family had retired for the night and they had been overcome by fumes before the flames had reached them. In his mind he could see Ellie sitting at her radio as the deadly fumes crept up the stairs. Had she been talking to someone at the time? Would they have realised what was happening?
Kyrano's words came back to him. 'There is a reason this girl came to you. You have some skill that she needs'. Wondering if he had now totally lost his sanity, John unbuckled his watch, then reached inside the set and placed it against the tuning block. The hands of the watch disappeared, leaving a grey surface.
"John!" Ellie's voice seemed to come from all around him. "That is you, isn't it? You're here?"
John couldn't help but smile at the tone of delight in her voice. "Yes, Ellie, I'm here. I came to see you before, but didn't know how to find you."
"Hang on a minute, something's happening." The grey mist on the watch face cleared to show an attractive young woman with long dark hair and dancing green eyes. John gasped as he realised that for first time he was seeing the girl who had occupied his thoughts for so long.
"Ellie?" he said, his tone incredulous, though this was no stranger than anything else that had been happening lately.
"Hallo, John," she said, smiling. "I often wondered what you looked like. Are you OK now? You're safe? I was worried about you."
"Yes, I'm fine now – thanks to you. I never thanked you properly for passing on my message."
"John," her voice was sounding hesitant now, "I'm going to tell you something, something that makes me very ashamed."
John could not imagine what this revelation would be. "OK. Tell me then."
"After our last conversation on your station, I was so mad at you – at what you'd told me. When you said you were in danger, my first thought was 'I'm going to let you die.' I thought if I was dead and you were too, then we'd be together, so you could still talk to me. I'm sorry."
"But you did help me."
"Yes. I realised that if I was dead but somehow stuck, like you had said, then if you were dead we still wouldn't be together, so then I would have nobody to talk to. John," he could hear the catch in her voice, "I am dead, aren't I?"
He looked around at the wrecked cottage. "Yes, Ellie, I'm sorry. You, and your father, and the boys. You're all buried in the churchyard, with your mother."
"So they're all together and I'm still held here somehow?"
John looked at the crystal block in the radio. "I think I know what happened. I think I could set you free. But I won't do it unless you want me to. I would still be your friend if that is what you want."
She gave a little sob. "It doesn't seem fair that I never got the chance to do anything with my life."
John wanted nothing more at that point than to put his arms round this young woman and console her, but words were all he had to offer. "A friend told me recently that he believes that some souls, who haven't learnt all they need to learn in this world, get given another chance."
"You mean reincarnation?"
John nodded. "I can't promise anything, nobody knows for sure, but it must be better to take a chance than be trapped here forever. He says you may not come back as a person, you might be an animal, but it would still be a life."
"Or maybe a bird?" she asked, a note of hope in her voice. "Maybe one of my sea eagles?"
John glanced up at the sky visible through the gaping roof. "Yes, maybe even one of them."
On the screen her face took on a decisive look. "OK then, I'll take the chance. Do what you have to do."
He reached inside the radio, then halted. "Goodbye, Ellie, and thank you again for helping me."
She smiled at him. "I think we've helped each other. Goodbye, John. Do it now, please, before I lose my nerve."
His eyes misting with tears, he knocked away the watch and pulled the block free from its mount. It glowed brighter for an instant and then went dull. Retrieving his watch, he stood and made his way outside, heading for the cliff edge. The crystal block lay in the palm of his hand, inert. Cold. Dead.
In a swift movement he flung the block out over the waves. "Goodbye, Ellie. I hope you find what you are looking for."
Then he turned and walked back down the path. Overhead the eagles circled, crying.