By R.W. Van Sant
“Almost there.” Ten announced.
“Good.” Jerry could not wait to see it.
The main road continued its serpentine path along the rocky coastline. The ocean dominated Jerry’s attention. He wondered how long it would be until he could ignore the spectacular sight and drive this road as Ted did; callous to its beauty, to the power of its call. Some part of him hoped he never would.
They continued through a pass where the road cut across the hillside. Beyond, a patch of flat land opened up between the ocean and the road. It was a desolate looking bluff empty save for overgrown vegetation and a lonely, Victorian-style two-story house in desperate need of repair. How could such a battered structure withstand the ocean winds after so many decades of neglect?
“There she is, home,” Ted said.
The truck bounced erratically as it abandoned the paved highway for an uneven dirt and gravel path. Two rows of thinning oak trees formed natural pillars delineating the driveway, ancient sentinels dutifully guarding the old road. Long decades of sea storms had stripped the trees bare of leaves and vitality. Jerry suppressed an involuntary shudder as they drove under the skeletal canopy that led to Ted’s “new” beach house.
The house might once have been the pride of the county. Worn, carved molding and splintered woodwork covered half the house, ceasing suddenly near the rear. A large wood porch ran the length of the structure facing the Pacific. The wood was splitting, and several planks were missing entirely. Above the porch awning, cracked and boarded windows lined the upper floor. Rotting shutters clung to the house held precariously with rusted hinges. Mossy bricks covered the house’s foundation, and long planks of wood nearly stripped of paint covered the outer wall. It looked to be a prime candidate for coastal re-gentrification.
The truck rattled to a stop on a patch of freshly laid gravel near the porch. Jerry looked toward the ocean and the cliff edge fifty or so feet beyond the driveway. Like most of the coast he had seen, it dropped down to the rocky shoreline. Jerry stumbled out of the truck, relieved to stretch his legs again. They were getting quite stiff. To his surprise, there was a patch of lawn between the house and truck. It was nicely mowed and about fifteen feet across complete with a plastic patio set; a piece of civilization carved out of the wild overgrowth that overtook the rest of the property.
Tall weeds lined the porch, ending in the remnants of a small picket fence enclosing what might have been a rose garden. The plants were overgrown, with large, thorny branches, devoid of life. The layout was the same as his grandmother’s garden in Albuquerque had been. Ted had his work cut out for him. Maybe he didn’t get such a deal after all.
A cool breeze came off the ocean, chilling Jerry’s skin. In New Mexico, a damp wind smelled of wet dust, but the wind off the ocean smelled of salt and decay. Jerry could visualize the fish and seaweed rotting on the rocks shore. He fought against the growing cold chills that climbed his spine. It was not that it was cold, Jerry could not see his breath the way he could in New Mexico on early spring mornings, but the dampness drove the cooler temperatures all the way to his bones. He shivered at the breeze and lamented leaving his jacket back home.
The sun glinted off the breaking waves, drawing Jerry’s attention to the opaque waters of the ocean beyond the cliff edge. It was a cove, curved like an impact crater, a moon-shaped gash cutting into the coastline for about a half mile separated from the ocean by a jagged reef that broke the surface several hundred yards out. The waves crashed against the natural breakwater as it protected the cove from the wrath of the open sea. Like a monstrous serpent, it undulated in and out of the waves running nearly the entire length of the cove’s mouth. The water inside the reef was even darker and more opaque than the ocean beyond the reef. A shattered post protruded defiantly from the murky water. Jerry’s first look at Teller’s Cove did not impress him.
A few steps toward the edge were enough to show Jerry that the bluff ended with a sheer drop down to the boulder-strewn shoreline some thirty feet down. A set of old wooden handrails led over the edge. The stairs they are attached to look old, weatherworn, and unsafe. It also looked to be the only way down. A small wooden dock rested at its base, just barely above water. Jerry trembled, unsure if the scenery or the wind caused the chills. He resolved to do his recreating down the coast a bit.
The harsh appearance of the cove did not seem to bother everyone; Jerry noted as he watched jet skis shoot across the water, running parallel to the coastline a few yards beyond the reef. Even though the air was nippy, someone was out on the ocean, enjoying the rising sun. Jerry looked forward to joining in on the fun. Jet skiing this early in the morning, however, was just plain obnoxious.
“Some beach you got there. How’s the fishing?”
“Not too good,” Ted pulled Jerry’s duffel from the bed of the truck. “I keep losing tackle. It has an undertow that pulls everything to the reef. I gave up after losing most of my tackle in one afternoon. I haven’t had the time to fish since, so if you’re wondering what to get me for Christmas.” Ted set the bags on the ground and climbed the newly replaced wooden steps up to the porch to the door.
“Well, that doesn’t detour the jet skiers.”
“Yeah, jet skiing at the crack of dawn. Must be nice.”
“Inside the cove?” Ted ran to the edge of the cliff.
“No just outside. Why?”
“It’s private property that’s why. I don’t see anyone.”
“I’m sure I saw him, he couldn’t have gotten too far.” The water was empty as far as Jerry could see. Exhaustion must have been playing havoc with his sense of time; he could have sworn he had seen the skier just moments before. It was not likely that even on jet skis a man could have gone around the bend quickly. “Is he hiding behind the reef?”
“Not this time of day. Tide is rising, not much reef to hide behind. There’s no one out there. Good.”
“What do you have against jet skiers?”
“Nothing, so long as they stay out of the cove. That current is dangerous. Lots of ships have gotten crunched by the reef over the years. I don’t want to get sued, that’s all.” He headed back to the house. “Probably just a tourist anyway.”
“Locals have sense enough to stay away from here.” Ted negotiated the creaking porch like an acrobat. Jerry was less sure as the boards flexed and groaned under his weight. “It’s quiet and, for the most part, secluded. That’s why the old captain built this place—privacy.”
“He could’ve found a more cheerful place to build a house.” He set his duffel by the door marked with a wet paint sign.
“You know, you don’t always have to be so critical. I know it’s not perfect, but it … has potential. I’m fixing her up.” Ted opened the door and walked in giving the painted surface a wide berth. Ted did not need to bother with the sign; Jerry could smell the fresh paint, a strong petroleum stench that permeated the whole porch.
“So, this is what you did with your inheritance. Not worried you’ll miss a few payments and lose the place?”
“No. It’s all paid off. Look, I’m a little tired, and it’s a bit complicated. We can talk about it in the morning okay?”
“Sure.” Jerry could barely keep his eyes open and would not have been able to follow the explanation in any case.
“Well, mi casa es su casa.”
Inside the house, shiny, new light fixtures illuminated an interior room that stood in stark contrast to the exterior. The walls glistened with new paint, and the floors looked freshly waxed. It was very different from the chandeliers and cobwebs Jerry expected when the door creaked open. Everything looked modern; even the outlets looked new.
“Wow! You have been busy.” The living room was large, with an entertainment center along one wall holding a TV, DVD, and stereo. It looked to be recently, if not expensively, carpeted.
“I figured that it was more important to repair the inside, plumbing and electrical first. You know make the place livable and get her up to code. The rest will come, just a matter of time. I’ll give you a tour tomorrow, er—tonight, later. I need a few hours’ sleep.”
“Yeah, sleep sounds good.”
“Watch the rail. I varnished it before I left to get you, it may still be wet.” Ted trudged up the stairway to the second floor. Jerry climbed close behind him, careful not to stumble too close to the railing. The top of the stairs opened onto a wide hall that ran the length of the house. Four doors lined the ocean-side wall on the left. On the right were two doors. Between them, an alcove that held a large, rusted metal spiral staircase that went upward to a wooden hatch on the ceiling.
“What’s this?” Jerry asked.
“It goes to the widow’s watch on the roof.” Jerry had seen it from the road, but paid little attention, a metal walkway on the top of the roof that overlooked the ocean. He remembered reading that they were traditionally reserved for women to watch for their sailor husbands to return home, or not as the name implied.
“Yeah, I want to put up a telescope mount up there. It’d be kickass for star gazing.”
The far end of the hall ended in an old, bulky wooden door, which most likely dated back to the original construction. It may have even once been the front door. It looked strong enough to prevent pirates or other undesirables from entering without permission.
“This is your room,” Ted opened the door opposite the spiral stair.
The room was clean but not renovated. It had an old-world elegance that affirmed Jerry’s belief that this had once been a grand house. The furnishings would be the envy of an antique shop, once cleaned up. Not the kind of furniture Ted would have gotten of his own accord. Jerry surmised that the house came furnished.
“Wow, an ocean view.” Jerry threw the duffel on the fluffy looking antique bed. Ted closed thick curtains, shrouding the room in darkness.
“All the bedrooms face the ocean. The captain who had the house build designed it that way. The man liked to watch from these windows.”
“He must have loved the sea.”
“From what I understand, he feared it.”
“Not a sea captain I take it?”
“No, he was a merchant sailor.”
“A merchant sailor, afraid of the sea, who chose to build a house right on a cliff face overlooking the ocean? Sounds as if he had a few loose screws.”
“Yeah, well most folks around here would agree with you. I think the house was his way of honoring his lost ship and dead crewmen.”
“His crew died?”
“Yeah, all of them, passengers too. Right out there. His ship hit the reef in a storm and sank.”
“So, close to shore. It’s only a few hundred yards. You’d have thought some of the crew would make it.”
“Story is that sharks got them. Everyone, the crew, and passengers, they were all eaten as they swam for shore. Everyone except the captain.”
“I figure that he must have felt some industrial strength guilt. The wreck messed him up pretty good. Probably had post-traumatic stress.”
“I can see that.”
“Old fishermen still tell stories of the captain, standing at these windows for hours staring at the ocean. When the moon was full, or during storms, he’d be standing out on the widow’s watch. One guy told me he saw him up there in an old sailor’s coat and hat, looking like the Morton’s salt dude. Yelling his lungs out at the reef.”
“They should have locked him up.” Jerry opened the worn duffel bag and pulled out a clean tee shirt. He had put on the one he was wearing over twenty hours ago, and he wanted a clean one to sleep in.
“They couldn’t; he never did anything wrong. Can’t lock a man up for being strange.”
“To save him from hurting himself? What he was doing could have been dangerous. So, what happened to him?”
“Disappeared. I think the locals might have gotten rid of him. These old guys are almost as bad. One night they got so drunk, they started talking about how they’ve seen his ghost crawling along the reef on stormy nights. Each story gets weirder than the next. People around here don’t play with a full deck.”
“On that note, I’m going to bed. Leave it to you to buy a haunted house.” The light still streamed through the break in the curtains, but Jerry was too tired to let it bother him.
“It’ll make more sense later after we talk. I’m heading to bed.”
“Yeah, okay good night.” Jerry pulled down the thick patchwork quilt and climbed into the bed. The sound of Ted’s footsteps echoed down the hall, resonating within the ancient walls. The soft thumping ended with the noise of a heavy door closing.
Jerry adjusted himself to sleep. The old brass bed was far more comfortable than he would have thought. The old feather mattress gave under his weight, but it surprisingly comfortable and warm. It made him feel the way he felt like he did after his parents died, and his grandmother cradled him in her arms to chase away the nightmares. Although the house was a bit creepy and he was not sure, there were not spiders hiding everywhere, his exhaustion won out, and he soon fell into a deep sleep.