Michael J. Vaughn recently published his 20th novel, Figment, at Amazon.com. The story follows Channy Adams, an Olympia, Washington radio journalist, whose everyday life begins to unravel little surreal bits at a time.
She gives Shawn a long wraparound kiss and watches him amble to his car. He leaves a track in the dew of her driveway and disappears into the fog.
She takes a long shower to clean out the déjà vu, sits down for a bowl of cereal and fills a Thermos with coffee. Across the lawn, the gardeners have cut a long hallway through the undergrowth. Tendrils of salmonberry reach out to catch at her sweatshirt. She emerges at a waterside trail, packed mud that slaloms a series of willows before opening to a rocky beach.
Channy takes a swallow from the Thermos and almost drops it at a piercing noise behind her. She spins to find a bald eagle perched on an overturned rowboat. The bird is post-office perfect, golden eyes, a cowl of white. He gives her an offended stare, unravels an impossibly broad pair of wings and launches, straight over Channy’s head. He continues north along the water, pausing to make a talon-strike on the surface but coming up empty.
Once she rediscovers her breath, Channy inspects the rowboat and finds upside-down lettering: HMS Bessie. She recalls this vessel from the summer, a long and lovely drift as she tried to work husband number two out of her system. As with all things Bessie, the setup is immaculate. The boat is tied to a metal post to prevent high-tide driftaways. Flipping it over, she finds the oars and a lifejacket velcro’d to the center bench.
After a bit of tugging and dragging, she manages a launch and drifts into the Budd Inlet, sliding the oars into their locks and searching for the old rhythm. Looking south, she can see the masts at the Swantown Marina. Her limbs begin to loosen, and she marvels at the speed she’s attaining. She stops for a rest and realizes that the boat is going on without her.
Channy leans forward to inspect, and almost has her face taken off by a wall of black rubber, exploding from the water and crashing back down. It resurfaces, revealing a patch of white shaped like Africa. It’s an Orca.
“Shit!” Channy feels the grip of panic, but fights it back by giving herself assignments. The oars are dancing in their locks, their blades skipping on the water, so she slides them out and stows them on the bottom of the boat. She peeks over the bow and finds the problem: the lead rope is taut, and somehow attached to the Orca. She takes a couple stabs at untying the knot, but it’s drawn tight by the force of the pulling.
They’re gaining speed. The boat feels like it’s hydroplaning, ridges and banks rushing by to the east. If she wasn’t completely terrified, it might even be a fun ride. She considers hurling herself overboard, but the Puget is a hypothermia trap, and also she might become Orca food. She grips the gunwales and tries her best to stay balanced. The mental pause allows Channy to entertain another horrifying thought: Orcas like to dive.
She needs to cut the rope, but she has nothing sharp, not even her housekeys. Then she thinks of Bessie, paragon of preparedness, and considers the interior of the rowboat. The only unobservable space at this point is the underside of the bench. She reaches a hand and feels a plastic edge, then rolls to the floor, landing her shoulder in a puddle. One good yank brings the delicious rip of velcro.
It’s a first aid kit. She opens the latch and finds bandages, antiseptic wipes, medical tape – and a Swiss Army knife. With visions of a tragic fumble, she carefully sorts the blades – screwdriver, knife, scissors, can opener – and finds a serrated knife. She saws at the rope, entertaining a vision of the Orca taking her under when she’s this close (and thereby making her death that much more pathetic). After a single seriously long minute, she’s two-thirds through when the Orca snaps the rope with a mighty tug.
Channy collapses on the forward thwart. The boat slows to a stop. The Orca dives, then takes a victory breach, revealing the rope looped around her tail, and continues north. Channy spends a few minutes letting the adrenaline seep from her muscles, then grunts her way back to the center bench. She finds the Thermos and is thrilled to discover that the coffee is still hot. She’d like to figure out where she is, but the weather conspires against her. She is surrounded by fog, turning everything – the ceiling, the horizons, the surface – to a slate gray. But then she sees a spot of yellow and realizes it’s a man in a kayak.
“Hey! Help me! Hey! Over here!”
It takes a long, long time, but eventually he arrives, puts a gloved hand on her gunwale and takes off his sunglasses.
“Channy! Hey, nice surprise. What the hell are you doing out here?”
“I’m not sure I should tell you. You would think I was nuts.”
“Lasso an Orca?”
“Well yes! How did you know?”
“I caught the tail end of it.”
“So did I.”
Her joke sneaks up on them. Their laughter shakes their boats, sending out ripples. Channy reaches for Kai’s hand, which sends an odd buzz through her body.
“Kai? Why did you kill yourself?”
Kai blinks, embarrassed, and gazes into the gray distance.
“The bullets they gave us were armor-piercing bullets. Do you know what those can do to the human skull?”
“I… can guess.”
“I didn’t just kill your husband, Channy. I obliterated him.”
Channy shivers. “But… you had to.”
“Look. I’ve run the ethical formulas a gazillion times. I get it.”
“He was slaughtering civilians.”
Kai stares at her. “It doesn’t erase the image. The image never goes away.”
“I’m sorry.” A low birdcall echoes in the distance. Channy takes away her hand. “So that’s why you took the sleeping pills?”
“Well, they helped a little.”
“No, I mean… the overdose.”
“It would be pretty stupid if I left you with the same image.”
“You’re a good man, Kai.”
She wipes her eyes, remembering him on the bed, looking so peaceful and still.
“So how the hell do I get out of here?”
Against his brown Sherpa skin, Kai’s smile is as dazzling as ever. “The tide.”
The water rumbles beneath them. Channy drifts away.
“Why aren’t you coming with me?” she calls.
Kai shrugs. “Got no gravity!”
The tide is not so bad as the Orca, but still she feels powerless, out of control. She passes an enormous tower, anchored in the water by a concrete base, and looks up to see two long strips in the sky. It’s the Tacoma Narrows bridges, old and new. She feels herself giving in to a drilling exhaustion. Fearing hypothermia, she tries to stay awake, but it’s no use. She gives in, and drifts away.
Channy feels a bump, and opens her eyes. She is draped across an aluminum bench, with a tremendous crick in her neck.
“Hey lady! You okay?”
The voice comes from a bright spot in the water. She sees white teeth and brown skin.
The face produces a rapid stream of Spanish. She shakes her head.
He laughs. “I thought you said ‘Que.’ I should have known. You’re much too white for a muchacha. Although right now you’re looking a little red. Are you okay?”
She marvels at how deftly he switches languages.
“Where am I?”
She squints and can see the waterfront buildings behind him, lined up like dominoes.
“Can I tie up somewhere?”
“Sure. Follow me.”
He turns his kayak and paddles away. Channy finds her oars and slides them into their locks. On her first few pulls, her arms feel like putty, but he’s nice enough to wait for her. They pull up to a new-looking pier with green composite planks and shiny metal fittings. He finds a stray length of rope and ties up her boat, then helps her onto the dock. She stumbles like a drunk, so he wraps a hand around her waist and deposits her on a bench.
“Man! You’re in rough shape. Hey, stay here, I’ll be right back.”
He returns with half a sandwich and a water bottle. She guzzles it down, till he puts a hand on hers.
“Hey, take it slow. You’re pretty dehydrated.”
She smiles. “Okay.”
“Hi. I’m Channy.”
“Channy. Cool name. So where did you begin this little adventure?”
She is not about to tell him the truth, so she gestures southward. “Down that way.”
“The Boat Haven? Geez, good thing a ferry didn’t run you down.”
She smiles stupidly. Federico taps her on the knee. “Well look, I gotta get to work. But let me give you my digits. You got your phone?”
She shakes her head.
“Damn, girlfriend! Okay, give me your hand.”
He pulls out a pen and writes his number on her palm.
“You give me a call if you have any more trouble. But if you feel light-headed or nauseous you call 911, okay?”
She nods. Federico pulls his kayak from the water and carries it up the dock. Channy finishes the sandwich, drops her lifejacket in the rowboat and heads for the waterfront, trying her best not to look like a homeless person.
The main drag is lined with sturdy buildings made from brick, rough-hewn stone and thick timbers. Their offerings are the usual touristy suspects: imports, artworks, boutique clothing, books, ice cream, seafood. The afternoon sun – the one that saved her from hypothermia – peekaboos the high ridge. Channy shivers, her jeans and sweatshirt a weak defense against a Northwest evening. She begins to realize the seriousness of her predicament. She is without money, without cards, I.D., a phone, anything that might vouch for her standing as a member of civilization. Or just get her home.
She has managed to think herself into a depression. Her legs feel weak. She finds a bench in front of a brick wall, folds her legs up to her body and cries. It feels good to let herself hit bottom. Perhaps when she gets there she can think herself out. She studies the lights lining a building across the street, rubs her eyes and wipes her hands on her jeans. At the distance of memory she hears a song. It’s a female voice, perfect vibrato, five percent sob, the lines blossoming like time exposure roses.
She knows better than to ignore a lifeline. Channy straightens her legs, shakes out the stiffness and wanders past a sign reading Cellar Door. Inside is a classic bar, brick walls painted white, high-varnished tables, a stout L-shaped bar with windowed pantries. Toward the back, a quartet of musicians surrounds a Persian rug: an athletic-looking man on standup bass, a red-haired rascal working brushes over a drum kit, and an extremely tall man hunching over a baby grand. A stool at center front holds a woman with straight black bangs, a short yellow dress with white spangles, and penetrating green eyes. She’s singing Little Girl Blue, and she’s Ruby.
Channy covers her mouth, turning her sob into “mmph,” but still a couple of patrons look her way. After the song, Ruby gives Channy a hug, holds a finger to her lips and takes her outside, right back to the bench.
“Channy! How the hell did you know I’d be here?”
Channy doesn’t know where to start. Her realities are insanities. But perhaps a partial insanity is okay.
“I didn’t. I was just… in town.”
Ruby gives her a look of stage surprise. “You got some kinda crazy GPS, girlfriend. I had a gig with Billy last night in Seattle, and he invited me to this little thing. I didn’t even bother to send out a tweet. No offense, honey, but you look like shit.”
Channy laughs. “I had a little kayaking incident.” A gear turns in her head. “I also managed to lose my billfold in the water. I have not a cent or a way home.”
“Holy shit! It’s a good thing you found me.” She peers through a window into the bar. “Look, I have to do a few more songs, but here’s a couple drink chips, and I promise we’ll figure out a way to get you home.”
Channy watches the rest of the show from a chair in the back, letting an Irish coffee siphon the stress from her limbs. A card on the table reports that the drummer is Billy Saddle, a near-mythic figure who once cost the Memphis Blues a pennant by interfering with a fair ball. He’s also a hell of a singer. He joins Ruby for a playful rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” throwing in little jokes that threaten (but fail) to throw Ruby off her game. A half hour later, Billy sings a version of That’s All that threatens to send the whole bar into tears, and they wrap up the gig. Ruby brings him to Channy’s table.
“Darling Channy. We have a plan for you. Tomorrow I am weighing anchor for Alaska, but it seems that a certain Mr. Saddle is driving home to Ocean Shores, which takes him right through Olympia.”
“That’s fantastic,” says Channy. “Thank you so much.”
“My pleasure,” says Billy. “It’ll be great to have someone to talk to – and keep me awake.”
A gear turns in Channy’s head. “Billy, do you happen to have a digital recorder?”
“What singer doesn’t?”
I am a preposterous woman, thinks Channy. Conducting an interview after a day like today. But then, perhaps the first step back from insanity is doing what one is used to doing. And certainly, the man has stories. The Blues shortstop, Pasco Fernandez, whose pennant-winning hit was turned into a ground-rule double by Billy’s grab, tracked him down fifteen years later and shot him during a softball game.
“Is he still in prison?”
“Yeah. Might be up for parole in five years. I did him a huge favor by not dying.”
They descend to the Hood Canal Bridge, mere feet above the dark water.
“So this epic baseball life of yours. Does that distract people from your musical talent?”
“Sure. But it also brought me a huge audience. I get a lot of lookie-loos, but then it’s my job to turn them into jazz fans. It’s a bit of a Faustian bargain.”
An hour later, they board the high passage of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Channy stares into the darkness below, trying to imagine herself down there, dodging towers, just a few hours ago. She realizes, much to her consternation, that she has left Bessie’s rowboat tied to the dock in Port Townsend.
“Have I given you enough?” asks Billy.
“Oh, plenty.” She hits the stop button. She studies Billy’s face as he drives and sees something that she has been suspecting. He is barely concealing a heavy sadness.
They achieve the end of the bridge and roll into Tacoma, the low hills like muffins frosted with housing.
“That last song…”
“That’s All?” He cocks an eye in her direction. “Off the record?”
“That’s our song. My wife, Joyce. She’s dying. Pancreatic cancer.”
“Movies would have you believe that once you hit that happy ending, everything freezes. I’m finding it hard to have a positive thought these days.”
“Been there,” says Channy.
It’s a challenge. She can meet it, but it’s a game she’s tired of winning.
“Sorry. I’m kind of a dick these days.”
“That’s all right.”
“No. It isn’t. Go ahead and mention the song if you like. She’ll enjoy that. But don’t say she’s dying. Say she’s ‘having health problems.’”
“You got it. Thanks.”
They stop at her cottage, sometime after midnight, to load the audio files onto her computer. She starts the coffee, but finds that Billy has fallen asleep on the couch. She covers him with a blanket, pulls out an air mattress for herself, and falls quickly to sleep. Her dreams have no chance of being as strange as her life.