Authors: Dennis Yates
Chad stood around and watched his brothers eat a greasy dinner with their father. He was vaguely hungry but didn’t see any reason to punish himself with a 101 gut bomb. Normally the aromas of charred burgers made him salivate, but the astringent smell of hospitals always caused his stomach to go watery.
Old dad had only eaten a few bites of his cheeseburger before an angry nurse came in and took it away. Why, he’d asked in disbelief, and she reminded him again that he was supposed to fast before surgery. His sun damaged face had crinkled up like a paper sack as he watched her plop his prize in the trash. At that point Chad’s brothers were coughing into their shirts to hide their laughter, but old dad knew better and his face grew long and ashen and they saw a man terrified of hospitals and after the nurse left the room, his sons offered up bites from their own dripping sandwiches. When everyone finished eating, a pint was hastily passed around until it was empty and they made Chad take the bottle so he could dump it into another garbage can.
There was no reason to stick around after he disposed of the bottle, Chad decided. Old dad was drifting in and out anyway, was more cooperative now than he’d been since he’d fallen onto the deck clutching at his side and screaming curses at them. The brothers had known right away what had to be done. It wasn’t the first time they’d seen the old bull taken down a few notches in the last few years. The time before it had been a kidney stone and they’d acted too late. There’d been a high price tag for all the damage he’d caused to hospital property, not to mention the doctor who’d had his nosed stitched after making the mistake of thinking old dad was too sedated to hear him bad mouthing his family.
Chad loved his family but there were times when they seemed like they were from a completely different pack. His brothers were several years older, and Chad’s earliest memories were mostly images of their ruddy hands reaching down to pick him up, wild drunken Christmas gatherings and sunny days out on the boats. Ever since he was a young boy he’d wondered about the time his brothers had spent with their father before he was born, and even then he’d sensed that he’d reached a new state of awareness from which he couldn’t return. It had always struck him as strange when he overheard them talking about events he remembered nothing of, and if he ventured to ask too many questions they’d usually take turns responding with such an ill conceived piece of fiction that it crashed before barely getting off the runway. For Chad it wasn’t ever his brothers’ awful storytelling that bothered him, but the underlying feeling they weren’t telling him everything—secrets to an impenetrable fortress he’d never see the keys to.
Of course he was wise to keep his suspicions to himself. He didn’t want his brothers to have another tool in their arsenal to tease him about, because nothing was off limits except for what had happened to their mother, what she was doing these days watching over them and their boat, speaking to them through the voice of water.
He couldn’t stop thinking about Ann. She’d been the last person he’d expect to see. He hated to admit it, but Ann still held the same magic over him that he’d been unable to escape since he’d ridden his gold Stingray and fished trickle creeks for rainbow trout. Back then if she’d asked him a question he’d forget how to talk, so there had been marked improvement since then.
After leaving her a voicemail, Chad found himself driving around Buoy City for no reason other than the fact that he didn’t want to go back to his apartment and watch the storm cause more water damage. The place was a mildewed dump and he was embarrassed. No one came by except local stoners wanting to see if he had anything to sell, but most of the time he’d just end up smoking with them and watching crappy shows on television until all hours.
Unless he was busy working the family crab business, Chad never had much ambition other than catching up on sleep and going to concerts. He had money to spend—sometimes more than he should have—and there were always women in Portland who knew how to have a good time if he wanted to. Lately he’d grown tired of the city women and their insatiable hunger for cocaine and overall hostility toward daylight and fresh ocean air. They weren’t vampires, but they were damn close to it. And that thought would be all it took for him to roll out of a dirty motel room with a bitchy strung-out chick who’d just locked herself in the bathroom and drive back home to Buoy City where he could clear his head with a long walk on the shore, lie on the sand and listen to the concert of waves that seemed to know what he needed to ease his unhappiness.
Most people Chad knew enjoyed wallowing in their misery, just scraping by somehow and spending their lives haunting the local bars. Chad didn’t want to end up like them and if it wasn’t for old dad and the family business his brothers might already be there. All three of them were divorced now, paying child support and living together in the same house they grew up in where over the years broken windows had been replaced with plywood and the yard had turned into a jungle littered with broken cars. No, the life he’d born into was going to get harder and harder, and if he didn’t wake up, he too was going to wind up moving into the house with the old man.
It was dumb idea to be out driving during the storm, but he’d decided to head out to Traitor Bay anyway. Maybe he’d get a chance to talk to Ann again without his brothers showing up and telling him he had to go.
She realized she was close when she saw flares guttering along the shoulder of the highway. Ann slowed the car down to a crawl. After each long bend in the road, she expected to come upon the jackknifed truck splashed in flecks of blue and red light. But no truck materialized, nor did the patrol car with Mitch and Sheriff Dawkins. Ann found it hard to believe they’d finished up so fast. Cops were usually the last to leave an accident scene, having to take measurements and write up notes for their reports. Something must have happened to pull them away. Maybe there were extra victims that needed to be transported to the hospital in Buoy City, or another emergency call? If they’d returned to Traitor Bay they would have had to pass her on the road. There was no other route except for a treacherous thirty-mile detour up through the mountains and she couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to try and drive up there now with its potential for flash floods and landslides. Hunters were known to get lost up there during unexpected storms—she’d known a boy in school who’d never been found.
Her headlights began to pick out a sheen of oil and ground glass, the epicenter of the crash. Road flares had burned down to cylinders of ash, reminding her of her grandfather’s cigars when he’d leave them to smolder on the porch. Since a logging truck had been supposedly involved, she was surprised by the lack of bark chips and clumps of moss scattered along the edges of the road. The only sign an accident had happened recently was a burnt rubber smell, and as far as she could tell it might have been coming from the chronic overheating problems of her own car.
As Ann crept up the road she noticed the rain had stopped, and when she looked up she could see that the sky had cleared. A white moon stuck to the ridge above like a downed hot air balloon, dragging shreds of light between the trees as if it had been torn open from below. This has to be the center of the storm, she thought. I’ve got to go back and take a closer look at that accident site. There won’t be a lot of time. Once the eye moves off, the wind and rain will be back in full force. And it might be a whole lot worse than when the storm first hit.
She turned onto an overgrown logging road and parked her car behind a stand of trees. As she walked back to the highway, she was surprised by how rank the smell of brine was coming off the ocean—a dark roiling cove far below, sparsely littered by the amber lamps of crabbing boats. Her upper chest had stung at first, as if it were sewn up tight with stitches. But soon the warm moist air worked its way down, melted away the stitches so she could breathe. Stress, she told herself. That and my stupid allergies. But you can try and push it out with your lungs. She turned on her flashlight and walked back to the place she’d determined was the accident scene, safety glass crunching beneath each step. She hadn’t seen another car since she’d decided to go to Buoy City. Other than the steady rustle of branches in the wind and the gurgle of water finding its way down, the highway up here was quiet.
Walking along the edge of the road, she aimed her flashlight at a silver stream of rainwater cutting into the ditch, watched as a convoy of plastic bottles and beer cans floated past. Beyond the ditch were fallen pines covered with moss. Some of the badly weathered trees tilted up at her with manes of fern, like startled creatures with gaping sockets eaten away by rot. Tracing the woods with her light, Ann noticed something in the shadows beyond the decaying logs that took her breath away. Sword ferns, glistening wet with something dark. Holding her breath she ushered the beam back, following the flattened salal and bracken on the slopes of the ditch to were she stood and let the light pool around her feet, saw the mirror of blood and the drop of oil in the shape of an eye.
Something’s dragged itself into the woods, she thought.
Or was dragged.
Ann slipped and fell in the wet underbrush. Blackberry and wild strawberry vine snared her feet and she nearly lost a boot. A dead branch tore through her jeans and scratched her thigh. It stung but didn’t bleed much. When she got to the downed trees she had something to hold onto, but climbing over them was another matter. Sometimes the damp bark would give way and she’d slide off, skinning the log down to the bare soft wood beneath where fat, yellow-bodied insects scrambled for deeper cover. It was safer to go slow, to saddle herself over the logs instead of trying to walk on top of them. Her jeans were soaking wet now and she was starting to chill. When she stopped to catch her breath she thought she smelled smoke coming from the darker forest before her. Wood smoke and the faint aroma of cooking meat.
The bleeding elk was lying on a bed of fern, dead. She bent down and stroked its fur, felt her eyes well with tears. The body was still warm, and in the flashlight she could see a thin vapor rising, first in the shape of the elk and then dispersing into the trees. Taking note of its injuries—the broken antler and protruding leg bone, embedded glass—she was surprised by the wound to its belly—a deep cut leaking blood—but assumed that as the elk had staggered into the woods it had impaled itself on something sharp. However, nothing she could find explained the smell of roasting meat. She’d searched the area around the elk for evidence of fire but had found nothing. Poor thing must have caught on fire, she thought. Fell down on its burnt side to cool it against the ground. If I could only lift eight hundred pounds I’d know for sure. But this is no time for wildlife forensics. You’ve got to find Mitch before it’s too late—if it isn’t already. So where in the hell did they go?
She felt raindrops and glanced up, saw an advancing arm of cloud coming from the west, a dark amoebae stretching across the sky to catch the moon. Before heading back she decided to keep the elk company a while longer, remembering all the other animals she’d found perished along the highway, their varieties of fatal injuries. She felt better for the ones that were able to retreat into the woods to die, that weren’t scraped from the road by someone working for the county and dumped god knows where. She’d known for a long time that the woods next to the highway were littered with salt-bleached bones, from her days of hunting mushrooms and collecting baby ferns. She’d even seen some remains that had escaped the destruction of scavengers. Complete skeletons that had come to rest in steaming hollows, where the sun’s rays were weakened by a thick canopy of leaves and an eerie green light settled over everything dreamlike and primeval.
People thought Ann’s interest in roadkill was weird, but that had never stopped her from pulling over to investigate, to acknowledge the animals in the state they were before the earth took them back. She’d always been drawn to animals, maybe because she didn’t have the same problem with recalling their faces as she did with people. She didn’t recognize this elk, however, although she was familiar with the several herds that wandered in and out of town, was used to them stealing from her garden. When hunting season arrived the elk would wander from yard to yard, eating whatever delicacies they could find while gunfire thundered from neighboring forests. Ann had always thought of the elk as royalty, that if she stared into their dark eyes long enough she could see some ancient spirit looking back at her across thousands of years, from a world she’d never know. But in those lucky moments when she became so closely connected that she lost all sense of self and time, the effect of standing before an elk or kayaking on the bay with the crimson sockeye salmon passing below would last for days, dwarfing troubling thoughts so she could see them as the ephemeral debris they were.