Brother Carl lives in a pocket of suburbia between the freeway and the San Jose airport. The house is modest but lavished with care. Carl has done so many improvements he could be a contractor, and enlisted Skye’s help in covering the front porch in slate.
Skye’s arrival is well-timed. Most of the family is already there, watching the last of the day’s football games. Carl’s wife, Rosa, sits at the dining-room table, conducting a panel discussion on the educational system. The crucial element is a rowdy chatter that makes Skye’s entrance a low-key event.
His nephew Stan, he of the linebacker build, wraps him in a hug more closely resembling a wrestling hold. Skye makes the rounds from there, hugging his brilliant nephews and nieces (headed for college or buzz-sawing their way through middle school), then continues to his dad, who engages him in an impassioned discussion of the baseball Giants. Skye’s family is impressively immune to drama, and busy enough with their own lives not to be too nosy about his. There is nary a hint of concern about his maniac behavior in Tahoe, and for this he is vastly grateful.
Rosa carries a bit of the Martha Stewart flair, and has dressed out the table with elegant appetizers. Skye attacks a plate of jalapeño brie with sesame crackers, and is content to eavesdrop on several conversations. Before he’s really ready, he finds himself next to Angie, who seems happy to maintain the low-key approach.
“So I heard you went on some wild trip.”
“Yeah! I swear, parts of it, I still think I was just dreaming it up. I ended up in New York, and I brought a woman back home with me.”
“Well now! Are we gonna get a chance to meet her?”
“I’m sure you will. Maybe Christmas. I didn’t want to subject her to our merry chaos quite yet.”
Angie scans the bustling room and laughs. “We’d probably scare her right back to New York.”
Skye chews up another cracker of brie, holding up a hand. “Um, Angie, could you… Follow me, wouldja?”
They slip into a hall lined with pictures of Carl’s daughters.
“Look, I wanted to apologize for Tahoe. I had no right to yell at you like that. I guess I just overestimated my ability to deal with so many relatives for so many days. Makes me realize, I lead a pretty solitary life.”
“That’s what we figured. We’re all so used to the craziness that a few extra bodies didn’t really matter.” She waves a hand. “And forget about the fight. It was silly. Besides, you’re my brother and I love you.”
That’s Angie’s superpower: she is able to say things like that and be absolutely sincere. He gives her a hug. “Thanks, sis. And I gotta say, my little blow-up turned into quite an adventure.”
She wiggles her fingers, voodoo-like. “Ah, so I am your inspiration. Well, stick around. A few more glasses of wine and maybe I’ll say some more stupid shit.”
“I wouldn’t care if you did.”
A moderate rumble emanates from the next room, meaning it’s meal-time. They re-enter to a lavish spread of all the classics: green beans covered in onion fries, baked beans with brown sugar and bacon, and sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Skye’s only dilemma now is dark meat or light.
The post-dinner entertainment is anecdote roulette, and Skye realizes just how good his siblings are at storytelling. They were raised on their father’s pilot stories, often compelling but bogged down with details, and have all developed internal editors. Carl is the best – should probably run for office – his narratives threaded with sly wit and honed by his uber-verbal job as a business consultant.
“So basically I was being an idiot, because the loop I chose was an 18-mile hike, with one sandwich and a single bottle of water. I had just made it to a dirt road, a half mile from my car, when I saw a bear with two cubs. Well, I’m not that much of an idiot, so I hitched a ride with some guy in a jeep. And that is how one avoids being eaten at King’s Canyon.”
Skye’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He expects it’s a text from Rachel, but then it goes past the usual three buzzes. He pulls it out and sees that it’s Jack.
“Hi, Jack. Wait a sec, wouldja?”
He picks his way through the room and ends up outside on the slate porch.
“Skye, listen. Can you get over here? It’s Rachel. She’s missing.”
The rain is getting heavier, and Skye makes a measured effort to keep his speed down. Highway 17 is treacherous enough when dry, and the cops will be out for the holiday. What is not helping is his stomach, which is loaded down with turkey, pumpkin pie and Rosa’s appetizers. But the small anxieties are consumed by the big one, which is what the hell is Rachel doing? She made her escape by slipping out of her window onto the garage roof – not the kind of maneuver that would indicate benign wanderlust. He angles onto the straight, wide drag of Highway One and pushes the accelerator.
When he pulls up to the townhouse, Audrey is standing on the porch, looking collected but focused. She marches to the passenger door and knocks on the window. Skye lets her in.
“You know the path by the train trestle?”
He cuts around the shopping center and pulls up across the street. Audrey’s out, holding a flashlight. He catches up and they jog in a single file, down the dirt path to the overlook. Audrey scans the beach, twitching her lips.
“He said he’d be out here.”
“Did someone… report something?”
“No. Just… logic. The beach. Look, two people, two directions. I’ll go that way. Cell phone?”
He taps his pocket. “Yes.”
“Okay, go. Run.”
They trot the long staircase and hit the sand. Audrey veers left toward Monterey. Skye angles along the cliffs, where he and Les were playing catch when Andy took his neck-breaking dive. He cuts across the damp sand near the waves, then turns toward Aptos, a low set of hills sprinkled with lights. Two of them flashing.
He takes off at a sprint. A set of houses stretches across the beach on an elevated block. A police car and an ambulance are parked at the end of the road, flashing red and blue. A trio of palm trees. His shoes slap the sand, the food churns, he keeps going. The heat builds up under his jacket, raindrops smacking across his face. When he finally arrives, the cold air chapping his lungs, he finds three men in dark jumpsuits, carrying a gurney near the clean, curved seawall. Something atop the gurney.
“Ho! Settle down there.”
A tall man in a paramedic suit holds him by the shoulders. Sculpted features, a blond mini-mohawk.
Skye pushes for voice. “Girl? Young woman? Dark hair?”
“Yes. Are you looking for someone?”
“Fiancee. She’s missing.”
“Okay. Okay.” Mohawk takes a nervous look toward the gurney. “Look. Would you like to make an ID?”
Skye looks past his shoulder. The gurney holds a dark plastic bag.
“Apparent drowning,” says Mohawk.
“Jesus.” Skye can feel his knees shaking. He presses a foot into the sand. “Okay.”
Mohawk puts an arm around Skye’s shoulder and guides him to the seawall. “It’s okay,” he tells the others. “Possible family.”
Mohawk unzips the bag. It’s Rachel, a strand of hair across her forehead. She is wet, ghostly pale, but unmarked. It seems that she could wake up and they could walk away, laughing at her misadventure, but he knows the look in her eyes. It’s the dark room. The locked door.
“Rachel Grossman. New York City.”
“I’m sorry,” says Mohawk. “Look, we’re going to take her to the morgue. Let me get your info. Are you all right?”
No. “Yes. I can… do that.”
“Okay. Your full name?”
“Skye Pelter. S-K-Y-E…”
The cold bureaucracy calms him down. He watches the ambulance drive away. Stands there for a minute, listening to the silent neighborhood, the crackling mutter of the breakers. He turns around to find Audrey, her face a mess of tears and rain. He wraps her in his arms and says, “Come on. Let’s go home.”
They walk along the water, his arm around her shoulder. The rain lessens to a heavy mist. Halfway there, they see a form that looks like a sea lion, waving his flippers toward the water. It’s Jack, on his knees, scooping ruts into the sand. Audrey kneels at one side, Skye at the other. Jack is chanting to the swing of his arms.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Photo by MJV