Authors: Dennis Yates
She checked the kitchen last. There was a pot on the stove with burnt soup in it. Ann touched the pot and it was still warm. She heard water and glanced at the sink. The faucet was still running a thin stream and she instinctively reached out to turn it off when her hand froze just before touching the handle. A large sponge rested on the edge of the white ceramic sink; shiny threads of red had crept out from under it and stretched down to the drain below in a root-like pattern.
“Where are you?” Aunt Kate asked. “I pulled the potatoes out of the oven already. Did Mrs. Notham keep you again?”
“I’m having car trouble,” Ann lied. “And I don’t know if I’ll be able to get home until late.”
“Good lord child. What a night for this to happen.”
“I’ll be fine. Gary’s on his way with his tow truck. He said he’d take a quick look. If he can’t fix it tonight he’ll give me a lift home. Are you going to be okay? Are the cats inside?”
“They all came in when it started to rain. I fed them dinner and now they’re sleeping next to the stove. What a lazy bunch they are.”
“Do you have a flashlight in case we lose power?”
“Yes. I’ve got that little one in my pocket. Are you sure there’s nothing I can do to help?”
“I’ve got help on the way auntie. Don’t worry about me.”
“Well be sure to call if something else comes up. Promise me you won’t go out if the wind gets bad. Just stay where you are until it passes over.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t go out. I love you.”
“Love you too dear.”
Ann hung up and dialed 911. She’d talked to the dispatcher at the sheriff’s office. The dispatcher seemed unimpressed by Ann’s story. After making her wait for close to ten minutes in the cold booth, she finally cut in and told Ann that Mitch and the sheriff had their hands full with a jackknifed log truck on the highway near Buoy City. It would be some time before they headed back.
“Who did you talk to?” Ann asked.
“Excuse me?” said dispatcher. Her voice came across surly and cigarette-cured.
“Did you talk to Mitch? Did you tell him about what happened at his house?”
“No, I talked to the sheriff. He said that Mitch was busy. Said he’d pass along the message though.”
“I don’t think you understand how important this is. I asked you to talk to Mitch. I think his wife might be in trouble.”
“Honey I did what I could. Now I’ve got other people to take of. It’s a crazy night out there if you haven’t noticed.”
Ann hung up and returned to her car. The back of her jacket was soaked through and her teeth were chattering by the time the heat came on. She couldn’t go home, not now. If her aunt found out what had happened the strain might be too much on her heart. Ann started the car and headed in the direction of Buoy. Rain was coming down so hard that it no longer seemed like rain but heavy wet fists falling from the sky. The wipers fought to keep the highway from being obliterated. It was stupid of her to be out on the road during a storm like this. A rock slide or a downed tree could take her out in a flash, not to mention a tourist unfamiliar with the road.
But if they can’t come to me, I’ll go to them. Mitch needs to know what I saw.
James stood shivering inside the leaky fishing shack, a leaning structure his father had built mostly from the scraps his brother-in-law had given him from construction sites. He still owned a key to the gate, had driven down the washboard road where blackberry bushes scratched the sides of his car. Other than a sorry excuse for a light that still hummed from a termite-eaten post in the driveway, the place seemed to hover in the surrounding darkness.
His blistered hands were still wet from washing them in the rusted sink. Dried mud droplets were everywhere—on his clothes and in his hair—but the rain had washed most of it away. Shoveling the heavy wet earth had been agonizing work. His shoulder throbbed as if it were infected and wouldn’t let up. When he’d come up empty, he’d swung the spade out over a cliff and the pounding surf below had drowned out his screams. He’d lain down and listened to his heart beating into the earth until he heard it echo back. When he’d awakened, his fingers were dug deep into the ground and his head had felt as if it was going to split open. He had no idea how long he’d been out except that it was almost night and he could see the thrashing arms of a red sun drowning behind a dark band of clouds.
He’d already sorted through the cobwebbed pile of wood stacked in the corner. It turned out to be mostly dry rotted, and produced more smoke than anything else. After relighting it several times, he finally coaxed the iron belly to accept the offering he’d stuffed inside and the damp cold air of the shack began to reluctantly warm. He whispered thanks to his father, took another drink of Johnnie Walker and returned the bottle to its hiding place below a loose floorboard.
He worried if he should have tried to find a better spot to park the rusted muscle car, some place he could be sure it wouldn’t be spotted from the road. He’d covered the top with a threadbare tarp, wasn’t sure if it would hold in the wind although he’d taken the time to weight it down with plenty of rocks.
It had been almost two months since he’d been discharged on a medical. The Navy doctors had tried everything and his right shoulder was still a terrible mess, his arm almost useless. He’d had no idea what he’d do the day he left the base in San Diego. He was in no rush to tell anyone at home. There was some money in his bank account, enough so that if he was careful he could buy himself some time to think.
He’d decided to walk across the border into Mexico, where he’d taken a bus to Ensenada and settled into a cheap hotel. The time he’d spent there had been lonely, the ever-revolving company of smooth talking rip-off artists tiresome. When James had returned to San Diego, a tweaker beach bum sold him the muscle car for a few hundred bucks. James suspected it might have been stolen, but he’d already made up his mind that he wouldn’t return to Traitor Bay by bus. Besides the fact that the tight confines of a Greyhound would play hell on his shoulder, he didn’t want to be seen stepping off in town with a duffle bag and slept-in clothes like a failure slinking back home. Instead he’d stayed sober and driven mostly at night, careful not to draw the attention of the highway patrol. The longest break he took was in the Northern Redwoods, where he’d hiked in as far as it took until he no longer heard the highway.
There wasn’t a window in the fishing shack, hadn’t been since he and his dad had an argument years earlier. No electricity came into the shack either, not since water found its way into the fuse box and rusted it out. James leaned against the peeling sill and watched the wind push dark, foam-netted swells inland until they broke against the bank. He’d wanted to go to Ann, but something had stopped him. Watching her reading at the counter in the store had been just about all he could handle in a day. At first he hadn’t even recognized her, wondered if she was someone new her aunt had hired. It wasn’t until she looked out at his car that he’d finally seen her face, knew for certain it was her. Even through a fogged windshield he could tell she had changed, that she’d grown into a woman who barely resembled the image he’d kept in his head.
He was unsure if he was going to remain in Traitor Bay. Other than possibly paying his parents a visit, the idea of no longer being incognito made him feel nervous. Maybe he just wasn’t ready to embrace the town or talk to Ann. Being a ghost had given him a perspective that would be hard to give up, and going public now would only deprive him of learning about other things. Things like what the sheriff was doing down on the docks this morning, pleading with a couple of Russians like they had him by the cajones.
At mid-morning James had awakened to their voices screaming obscenities at the sheriff, who did nothing but look down and clench his jaw. As far as James could figure out, the two men standing in the boat were searching for something of great importance. At dawn he’d seen them prodding the shallower edges of the bay with long poles with hooks mounted on the ends. They wore black leather jackets and no hats. James could see the rain pelting the tops of their shaved heads. It seemed as if they had no awareness of the cold. Yet it wasn’t the presence of these strange men that had stirred James’ attention—he’d seen his fair share of unusual tourists—but the way in which Dawkins seemed to be cowering before them. At that moment James had felt the world shift a little. Was the town set off plumb because he’d arrived, or had it only taken a while for him to notice that it always had been? James didn’t know anyone in town who hated outsiders more than Dawkins and it surprised him to see the sheriff accept the abuse. Dawkins was a hard ass and liar and was known to get rough sometimes. He’d done what he’d could to make James’ life miserable, was in fact near the top of his list for reasons to leave town and become a sailor.
He lowered the wooden shutter and bolted it in place, lit candle wicks sunken so deep into tin cans that he singed his fingers. Although it cut down the roar of the surf, having the window blocked did little to stop an icy wind from worming through the cracks. It was going to be a long night waiting for the storm to pass, and James hoped he could get a few hours of sleep before morning. He’d spent much of his boyhood in this place before going out to sea, thought about all the times he’d been still asleep when his father carried him down the dock—how it felt to wake up in the morning miles away from land, listening to his father laughing above, catching fish and working through the day’s first six pack.
On top of an overturned giant cable spool he spread out a Traitor Bay weekly before unwrapping a soggy turkey sandwich he’d bought at a deli that morning. The paper was the same old rag it had always been, brimming with the latest gossip, death notices and marriages. Not a lot had changed. Things happened much like the tides—cycling around again and biting you on the ass if you weren’t watching the signs. A fat developer they’d run out of town the year James had left was reported to be seen lurking around again. Eye witnesses claimed that he was riding in a car with his new brother-in- law, a state senator with a lot of pull. The only newsworthy story that caught James’ attention discussed the skeletal wood frame of a ship exposed on Last Hope point. It got James thinking about the Russians again, if their presence had any connection to the low tides
What could they be looking for?
After taking some pills for his shoulder, he unrolled his sleeping bag and lay down on top still fully dressed, let his thoughts run their course until they seemed to blend into the sound of the current next to the shack. Being alone in this place had always brought peace. When his parents were fighting a lot he’d come down here to get away. Sometimes his father would come down and see him in the morning still half drunk and apologize and James would insist on taking the keys and driving them to the 101 for coffee and breakfast. As things got worse he came down rarely, and if he did so it was to pick another fight with James.
Despite all their troubled times, James knew that his father still loved his family. But the commercial fishing business was a cruel one and only the truly lucky were ever spared. Some years the salmon runs were heavy and during others there was hardly anything, yet the one thing you could always count on were the mounting debts. During the recent drought years James had begun to feel like just another mouth to feed. He couldn’t contribute as much as he wanted to. His stomach was tricky and often betrayed him when his father needed him working on deck. Why he decided to join the Navy was beyond anyone’s guess, but it had cured him of seasickness and ruined his shoulder in return.
He didn’t know if he’d fallen asleep or not when he heard the engine idling up above the private drive. Doors opened, followed by voices blended in the static whisper of rain. He sat up and listened. The doors shut again. An engine revved, and he smelled oil smoke drift down the drive before he heard the gate squeal and crash. James grabbed a two-foot piece of pipe in his left hand and edged toward the door. He watched a dark blue van roar up next to his tarp-covered car and stop. Two men dressed in black got out the front, one holding a sawed-off and the other gripping a revolver. They looked like the same men he’d seen with the sheriff on the bay. James heard the one with the shotgun jack a round in the chamber. The man stepped next to the post with the light, swung up the rifle and smashed it. There was an explosion, followed by a brief shower of sparks that hung in the air before bits of glass tinkled to the ground like frozen rain.