by R.W Van Sant
Jerry awoke cold and shaking. His heart pounded heavily in his chest, and he wondered if it would stop from fatigue. The taste of blood was fresh in his mouth, and his stomach revolted against it. He felt his mouth for the source, but his tongue gave no indication that he had bitten it in the night. Lie still and let nausea pass. The last thing that Jerry wanted to do was to explain to Ted why he puked all over the antique quilt. Slowly, his stomach eased, the taste of blood faded, and the power of the nightmare lost its edge.
Jerry pulled the quilt around him tightly. A sliver of light pierced the window and sliced into the darkness of the room, stinging his eyes. Desperately, like a child, his hands fumbled to find something familiar in the strange room, as though familiarity could drive away the night terrors. His hand stumbled upon the strap of the duffel bag that he’d set at the foot of the bed. Pulling it up, he clutched it tightly to his chest.
It was a stupid, childish thing to do. It was only a nightmare. He was not a child. Nightmares had no power. He forced himself out of the warm bed. His stomach still felt queasy. No more convenience store cappuccinos.
Jerry opened the curtains wide and let sunlight flood in, chasing away the remaining shadows. White paint yellowed by decades of exposure gave the room a lived-in, almost cheery feel. He stood in the window and bathed in the warmth of the California sunlight. The heat on the skin seeped slowly through him, taking the shivers away. Eventually, he gathered up the nerve to turn and look out the window.
The cove, the setting of his hellish night visions, filled the window. He tried to appraise it dispassionately, but an uncontrollable shutter escaped his willpower. Sunlight from the afternoon sun glinted crimson across the water’s surface. It was hard to wrap his head around the fact that an entire ship full of people had actually died. It wasn’t an ocean. It was a massive graveyard. It made his skin crawl.
At least Ted hadn’t seen him lose control. As children, he was good at telling ghost stories that gave Jerry nightmares. It annoyed him that Ted’s stories could still have that effect. Jerry grabbed his towel and went to find the shower.
The bathroom was a strange dichotomy of the antique fixtures and new drywall. Unpainted walls marked with white stripes and circles of spackle stood out against the newly laid linoleum. The faucet looked new and had a pipe coming out of the top and running along the wall coming out just above head height ending in a large brass showerhead. Water rattled loudly through the pipes as he turned the knobs, finally emerging in a weak, but steady stream. It swept over him washing away the residue of the night sweat. Its warmth was a comforting contrast to the frigid waters of his nightmares. Under the stream, his apprehensions flowed out of him like the dirty water. It swirled down the drain, taking the fear with it, back to the cove where they began.
The aroma of morning breakfast wafted up the stairs, Jerry’s rebellious stomach rumbled. Except for the coffee and donut, he hadn’t eaten since he’d left Albuquerque. In the kitchen, sitting on a half-tiled countertop, a Mister Coffee machine sat half full of brain jolting liquid. He retrieved an empty cup from the drying rack and filled it adding some non-dairy creamer. Cautiously, he tasted the brew.
Above the coffee machine, a calendar image of the nearly nude blonde woman did more to wake him up than the over strong coffee, which tasted burned. Jerry added more powdered creamer. The calendar had two boxes marked, the day he arrived and Friday’s box. Ted had never been the kind of person to go in for calendars. Perhaps the death of their grandmother had instilled some responsibility into him.
A small, modern table sat in the center of the kitchen. It looked cheap, most likely from a warehouse store—precisely the type of furniture Ted would buy. He sat down to drink, but no amount of cream could salvage the bitter liquid. It went into the sink with all the reverence a truly bad cup of coffee deserved. The remainder of the pot quickly followed it.
When the smell of the acrid liquid cleared, Jerry noticed the smoke. On the stove, a frying pan began to billow black smoke. He grabbed the pan, tossed it into the sink, and turned the water on the sizzling remains of what could have once been sausage. A cloud of steam covered his face and stung his eyes. “Ted!”
“What?” Ted ran in from the living room. “Ah crap!”
“Ted, you should know better than to leave food unattended.”
“Sorry, I had a visitor.”
“Here?” Jerry went to open a window. “You said the place was private.”
“Police, looking for a lost boater. The property has a good vantage point, so I’m always getting a call whenever someone is late for dinner. Is it ruined?”
“Unless you like charcoal soup. Got any cereal?”
“How about going into town for a late lunch? I have errands anyway.”
“Sure.” It would at least give the kitchen time to air out. “Hold on I’d better grab my backpack. I’ve got some serious studying to do this week. Oh yeah, I promised Arturo I’d call when I arrived.” He pulled the phone from his pocket. He couldn’t get any bars at all. “My cell phone doesn’t work.”
“Ah, no. I forgot. We can’t get a signal out here. Too many hills between us and the nearest tower.”
“Shit, “He shoved the phone in his pocket. “This really is the boondocks.”
“You can use the landline.”
“I’ll call later.” Jerry ran up the stairs and grabbed his pack from the foot of the now unmade bed that he told himself he’d make later. He slung the heavy bag over his shoulder and bounced back down the stairs. “I’m starving.”
“Me too.” Ted grabbed a new looking briefcase as headed out the door. Ted wasn’t the briefcase type. Or the library card type. The hope of locating a decent cup of coffee drove away thoughts of Ted’s strange new habits.
“Any chance of finding some Huevos Rancheros?” Jerry asked on the way out the door.
“Yeah, slim and none,”
In the daylight, Jerry could see that the driveway was more of an oil-slicked patch of pebbles. Jerry hoped that it was an old oil spot. In the full light of day, the truck looked even worse. Ted was a good mechanic; it was a shame to let his car go to pot. How much had he spent on the house?
Much to Jerry’s surprise, the car started up on the first crank. The drive to the highway was just as bumpy as he remembered. Once past the prominence, the coastline took on a more pleasant, although still rocky appearance. A little further, they drove past a beach that looked positively inviting. It was large, sandy and already filled with bikini-clad figures that waded casually in and out of the water. People were swimming, and boats were sailing. That was the California Jerry had come to see.
The beach ended with a small dock filled with fishing boats. On the landside, a small town protruded into the countryside. They passed an old looking large wood carved sign mounted on two posts, it read “Welcome to Puerto Villa.” Ted slowed and turned into the parking lot of a small café decorated to look like a ship. Not unlike a fast food fish place, but much less planned. “I have to run a quick errand. Can you order me a burrito to go? I’ll be back in about an hour.” Ted reached into his back pocket to grab his wallet.
“No, I’ll get this. Where are you going?”
“It’s a surprise.” He smiled. “Meet me at the library. Okay?”
Ted pulled away almost as soon as his brother was out of the car. Wherever he was going, he was in a hurry get there. “Where is the library?”
Nets, harpoons, hooks, pulleys—even an old ship’s wheel decorated the walls of the small establishment. Along the roof, like streamers, signal flags draped between old nets decorated with starfish and plastic crabs. Whoever built the place apparently needed a place to store his fishing gear. Some might have taken it for atmosphere, but Jerry felt it just cluttered up the place. Large windows faced the docks. Jerry took the first open table with a window so that he could watch the men work on the boats. He opened his western civilization and started to read. The shadow of a large anchor that seemed precariously attached to the wall above the window fell upon his book and made him nervous. He was about to move when the server appeared.
“Literacy. That’s an interesting choice. You’re obviously new here.” The young woman stared down at Jerry in amusement as he squirmed out from underneath the dangling anchor.
“Sorry, “Jerry motioned to the next table over. The waitress moved aside. He squirmed out of the booth. “Just feeling a bit like Damocles.”
“Are we ready? May I take your order now?” The woman prepared her order book and pen after patiently waiting for Jerry to assume a more comfortable seat.
“A hamburger.” He felt a little embarrassed and feared that it showed on his face. “Can you tell me where I could find the town library?”
“That’s a new one. Sure,” She poked the pen in the air, to emphasize her directions. “Down the road four streets. Turn right and go two blocks. Can’t miss it, it’s labeled. Big sign. Anything else?”
Jerry tried not to stare at her, but blue eyes and athletic build made it difficult for him to focus on the menu. He wanted to get to know her better, much better. It was liberating being away from home, where no one knew who you were. It allowed a person to be more daring, to take risks. “I‘d also like a coke, a burrito to go and …will you go swimming with me sometime?”
“Burrito to go, and a coke. All out of swimming with the waitresses, sorry store policy. I don’t swim with strangers, sharks or insurance agents.”
“I’m really harmless.”
“That’s what the shark said. I’m just trying to do my job.” She replied. “I don’t date strangers.”
“Define stranger,” Jerry said. “Compared to frat boys I’m quite normal.”
“There’s some yardstick.”
“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jerry Lujan.” He offered a hand. “And whom may I have the pleasure of meeting?”
“Eleanor Foster.” She cautiously shook his hand, then turned abruptly and returned to the kitchen, taking his order and hopes with her.
Outside the dining room window, Jerry could see that the small town was bustling. He found himself more interested in the goings on the outside than in re-reading the section of the Gothic architecture movement. The town had plenty of tourists, but it looked to be geared more toward the fishing industry. Jerry had seen several bait and tackle shops as they drove through, but he hadn’t noticed any hotels or trendy clothing stores.
Growing up in New Mexico, however, he had been in more than enough small towns. They were all boring, whatever appeal they had died after a day or two. Still, if Ted was happy living here, he could stand the occasional visit.
On the docks outside, fishermen looked to their vessels and their catches. Each one moved around their boats with precision and purpose, probably preparing their boats to go out again the next day. They stopped only briefly to acknowledge a passing coast guard patrol. It was moving slowly; Jerry could see the sailors on the deck staring at the water. He wondered if they were looking for Ted’s missing boater. The town was interesting enough, but he didn’t want to spend a Saturday night analyzing the activities of a small-town fishing dock.
The waitress returned with the white takeout box and a plate, which she placed on the table before him.
“Boyfriend?” he asked.
“No, you?” She put the check on top of the take-out box. No mistaking that gesture, she was telling him to eat quickly and then leave.
“Not lately. Guys are such creeps.”
“Look, if I went out with every tourist who hit on me… Well, no. I’m sorry.”
“Okay if you change your mind I’ll be here until Saturday.”
“Don’t bother.” She walked away. “Not interested.”
Jerry sighed and put his book back in his pack, then turned his attention to his hamburger. He quickly ate his food and then went to find his wayward brother.
He discovered Ted sitting on the lawn reading a book, lost to the world. “Watcha reading?”
Ted dropped the book. “I didn’t see you.” Jerry caught the title, ‘Diving Regulations.’ Ted retrieved the book and rose to his feet. “Come on.” He headed toward the library entrance.
“You are aware that this is my spring break. I’m sure that there is a rule against going into a library while on vacation.”
“You’ll find out in a few minutes.” He replied. “You probably can’t scuba, can you?”
“Oh yeah, I dive in the Rio Grande all the time. The mud is hell on the goggles, so I gave it up.”
“Yeah, that’s okay. I know an instructor. It’s easy. You’ll love it. It’ll appeal to the oceanoleger in you.”
“Oceanographer, okay, sure,” He always wanted to scuba dive, and it would guarantee some beach time.
“Good, cause I signed you up for an accelerated class tomorrow.”
“And if I’d have said no.”
“I had faith in you. Besides, I need a dive buddy, someone I can trust. Family.”
“That does limit your options. When did you learn to dive? “The situation was starting to bear striking similarities to others involving Ted. Not all of them ended well. “What are you into Ted?”
“You know you worry too much. I’ll explain inside, away from stray ears.”