Authors: Walter Greatshell
Tags: #Comics & Graphic Novels, #Horror, #Fiction
Inside the fuselage it was cozy; the sound was muffled, and the curtained dimness—the bus smell and rows of fabric-padded seats—lent a feeling of homey familiarity.
Henry took his seat, really no different than a seat on the Greyhound Bus, and looked out the window at the sunlit terminal building and the big orange ball of the Union 76 station just beyond. The Del Monte Hotel was now only an empty lot, a bare patch on the hill, but he knew his mother was weepily staring in the direction it had been.
He wished she would forget about it. There was nothing there, and had never been. Not for them. But this, finally, was theirs; their moment, their future. No more crummy motels, no more crazy family, no more cockroach-ridden slums—this time they were moving to paradise. To Catalina Island!
It was the greatest moment of Henry’s life. He could never have imagined it would also be the precursor to the strangest and worst...or the last.
AVALON, PRESENT DAY
oh, Moxie! Look at the fishy! See the fishy?”
Ruby is recording as Henry pushes Moxie’s stroller up the ramp connecting the ferry dock to the wharf. Below them the water is gorgeous aquamarine, churned silvery by the idling ship, with vines of swaying kelp looming dark green and brown out of the depths. Here and there amid fizzy shafts of sunlight are living spots of bright orange.
“Those are Garibaldi perch,” Henry says, going back for the luggage. “Named after the Italian explorer. They’re protected. It’s like a five-hundred dollar fine to kill one.”
“That is so cool,” says Ruby. “They’re like big goldfish. See the pretty fishy, honey?”
“No,” Moxie says, craning out of her stroller. “Where?”
“Right there. Follow my finger.”
“Pishy, mommy! Stop! Wanna see Pishy!”
“Right down there. There’s one! See?”
“Right there, silly.”
“Oh.” Moxie squints blankly at the fish and settles back, unimpressed.
“This is so beautiful,” says Ruby, taking a panoramic shot of the steep, rocky hillsides surrounding the town of Avalon like a great amphitheater; the expensive houses perched up there like sentinels, their picture windows overlooking the village and the perfect crescent beach below. “What a place to live. It looks like Greece or something.”
“Yeah, it’s a nice place to visit…”
nearly as beautiful as Henry remembers. Even after thirty-plus years it is much the same, the harbor entrance still dominated by the Coliseum-like Casino and its stone jetty, the picturesque moored boats and the same old rickety green fishing pier. At least from here the town looks the same, too: the tourist shops and restaurants along the brick promenade, the bars and hotels—perhaps it is all just a bit more deliberately quaint than he remembers, a little more Disneyfied and upscale, but basically the same. After all, it was a tourist trap back then, too. He just saw it with different eyes.
The most visible difference now—and Henry noticed this while the ferry was still far away from the island—is the amount of development that has taken place on the mountainous flanks of Avalon: enormous white banks of luxury terraces climbing arid sea-cliffs that had previously been the province of wild goats and pigs. Construction has obviously been booming.
“Should we try to track down your mother first, or should we get a bite to eat?” Ruby asks. Henry knows she is just being supportive; none of them has eaten yet, and Moxie is getting cranky, but if he needs to do his thing, she’s there for him.
“Pancakes! Pancakes, mommy!” Moxie moans theatrically. “
“Thanks, honey,” he says gratefully to his wife. “No, let’s eat. There’s no rush.”
“Coffee for you folks?”
“Yes, please. Decaf.”
“Same for me.”
“All we have is Sanka.”
“That’s okay. As long as it doesn’t have caffeine—caffeine makes me insane.”
“Two Sankas…” The waitress scribbles briskly on her pad, then looks up. Her nametag reads,
. “Do you need a couple more minutes, or do you know what you’re having?”
“I think we know. I guess we’ll both have the Two-Egg Special, eggs over easy, with rye toast. And could I get a side order of avocado with that?”
“Thanks so much. Oh, and a glass of orange juice, and—”
“—and the Short Stack of pancakes and a glass of milk.”
“…O-kee-doke. Will that do it for you folks?”
“Yep, that oughtta do it for now. Thanks, Glennis.”
. Your order should be right out.”
After the waitress leaves, Ruby grins and says, “You always get so
in places like this.”
“It’s just neighborly.”
“Shoot, I should have asked for water.” Ruby is just noticing signs apologizing for the island policy of not serving water unless it is requested. “After being out on that deck in the wind I could drink about a gallon.”
“Tell her when she comes back.”
As they sit and wait, enjoying the late breakfast ambiance and the view of the beach promenade, they become aware of a babble of conversation issuing from the next booth:
“—and I think you’ll agree that restaurant prices here are comparable to dining out on the mainland.”
“Yes, but what about the water shortage? Is that a problem?”
“Not at all. As you can see there are longstanding conservation measures in place. There’s plenty of water to go around, don’t worry.”
“I just wonder how they can keep building condos right and left if the water supply is limited.”
“Every new construction has to submit an environmental impact statement to prove it’s sustainable. It’s all very environmentally friendly.”
“But is it those low-flow toilets and fixtures? I hate those.”
“Not at all—our units have nothing but the most luxurious bathroom appointments. A little later we’ll take a drive up there and you can see for yourself.”
“Gee, I just don’t understand how it can be so inexpensive…”
“Not everyone wants to live on an island year-round. These are residential retirement units, not vacation property—we’ve designed them specifically to appeal to independent-minded folks like yourselves, people who are alone in their golden years and may be seeking more of a sense of belonging, of community.”
“But I heard condos here start at half a million dollars.”
“We use a sliding scale; some of our residents do pay that.”
“So they subsidize people like me. How do they feel about that?”
“You can ask them yourselves—I think you’ll find they’re all very warm and welcoming. It’s just like our brochure says: ‘Come for a look, stay for a lifetime.’”
Henry steals a backward glance and sees a party of elderly ladies and a tall, lustrous blond woman. The blond is the one making the sales pitch, and is wearing a name tag that says
Hi! My name is Lisa
Henry leans over the seat and says, “I’m sorry to bother you folks, but I couldn’t help overhearing that you were talking about condos. Could I just ask you a quick question?”
“I guess so,” the blond says, smiling thinly.
“Well, I spent a little time here as a kid, and I always wondered what it would be like to live here. Do you know anything about a place called Shady Isle?”
“Of course. Did you want to make an appointment with one of our agents? Let me just give you some of our literature—”
“Well, the reason I ask is that my mother just moved up there, and I was curious about the place.”
“Your mother lives up there?” The woman sounds oddly perplexed.
“Yes. Something wrong with that?”
“No, but…shouldn’t you ask her, then?”
“Oh sure, but I was wondering what the locals thought about it.”
“Thought about what?”
“All those new residents moving in. If there’s any friction…?”
“Not at all.”
“Because I remember the islanders weren’t too crazy about outsiders when I was here.”
“I’m not sure what would’ve given you that idea, but I can assure you it’s not the case.”
“Don’t they put a strain on the resources, though?”
Henry taps the conservation notice. “Water shortage.”
Her smile frozen, the woman says, “It’s not an issue.”
“Oh, good. That’s good to know. Must be some pretty crazy competition for building permits in a place like this, though. A lot of back-door maneuvering, if you know what I mean. I’d love to know who’s getting a piece of that action.”
“Sir, I really wouldn’t know. Now, if you don’t mind…”
“No, that’s okay. Thanks, Lisa.” Henry turns back to his own table, whispering to Ruby, “Was it something I said?”
“She’s just busy, honey.”
Suddenly Henry realizes he’s being watched with raptor-like intensity by someone in the booth opposite—a thickly-scarred bald guy with forearms like furry hams. The man’s brutish head and neck form one contiguous unit that rises like a stump from the collar of his knit shirt. But something doesn’t fit the picture: A tiny pair of bifocals is perched on the man’s ruined nose—an old-time boxer’s nose—and documents from an open briefcase are spread across his table, giving him the look of a scholarly gorilla.
Ruby snaps Henry’s attention back: “Oh, shoot,” she says.
“I forgot to ask for water again.”
“Yeah, I need hot sauce, too.” Henry turns to call the waitress, when suddenly something about that blond woman registers in his mind:
The height, the blond hair, that perfect chin. The attitude. It’s her; it’s definitely her. Henry puts his hand over his mouth and glances back around, unsure of whether to laugh or scream. “Oh my God,” he murmurs, shaking his head.
“What?” Ruby says, alarmed by his sudden change of complexion. “What’s the matter?”
Under his breath, he says, “I remember that woman.”
“Who? The condo woman?”
“What about her?”
“Just someone I went to school here with,” he says. “Nothing. I’ll tell you later.” He looks down at his plate as if noticing it for the first time. “Phew, looks good! I’m starving.”
“I still haven’t gotten my water.”
“Can we skip the damn water?”
This comes out more harshly than he intended. Henry realizes he’s sweating. Moxie pipes up, “Mommy! Daddy made boo-boo—give him time out!”
“Whoa boy,” says Ruby in surprise.
Backpedaling, he says, “No—I’d—just like to finish up and get out of here, if it’s okay.”
“All right, fine.” She looks at him interestedly. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, I’m fine. Really. Let’s just eat.”
Dibs on his heart
Henry can’t taste a thing.
The Formosa Hotel is just as Henry remembers it: a big,
dilapidated wooden heap, bleached gray and peeling from the salt air, with balconies overhanging the narrow side-street and tiny, stuffy rooms with hornets buzzing through perforated screens. Even as a child it reminded him of the beached wreck of a ship, yet there was always something cheerful and light about the place, a sunny transparency very different from the dank, tomblike Del Monte. It still has no television, no phones, no private baths and no sea view, but it is cheap—which is the main attraction.
“When we ran out of money, my mother cleaned rooms here in exchange for our lodging,” Henry says, humping their bags up three flights of groaning, ancient stairs. “That was supposed to be just until she could get a real job.”
“You poor kid,” says Ruby from behind, carrying the toddler.
“I just remember being terrified we’d have to go back to the mainland. We’d already bounced around so much, and here we had finally come to a place I wanted to stay. I
it here—I was having the time of my life.” He fumbles the key into the door and kicks it open.
Ruby looks at the bright, hot, cramped little room, barely big enough for a bed, and says, “I can see the appeal.”
“Well, it seemed bigger at the time. And my standards were lower.”
“I guess so.” She sets Moxie loose on the threadbare coverlet and opens a window onto the balcony. Leaning out, she says, “Well, at least we can sit out here in the evening after we put Moxie to bed. It’ll be nice when the sun goes down.”
“Yeah, we should eat out there.”
“Get some wine…”
“Oh, yeah. Definitely.” He brushes against her from behind and she ducks back in to kiss him.
“I told you this was going to be fun.”
Ruby was right: It was the best thing he could have done to confront his childhood anxieties head on. Even if her motives for doing it were not entirely pure.
Oh, let’s go
, she had said firmly, dismissing his reservations.
We have to go
Not for your mother, but for you
I’ll bring my camera and
it’ll be like a Freudian
the estranged mother/son thing, the spectacular island scenery, the childhood fears, PTSD, and devastating brain trauma that have left you a hollow shell of a man, the grandchild she’s never met
I’d just love to get you and your mother talking on camera
who knows what dark family secrets might get dredged up? You never even knew your father, right? That kind of stuff is pure PBS-quality gold!
How a place like Catalina could have become such a ridiculous hobgoblin in his mind, Henry can’t imagine. It’s just an ordinary resort town, for God’s sake. After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan he should be grateful as hell to be here, to be anywhere. The problem is he can hardly remember his military experiences, while the events of his childhood won’t leave him alone.
He has vague impressions of the war, just enough to know it happened, but the details are sketchy because those memories were stored in the part of his brain that got scrambled in The Accident—a nasty car crash that occurred while he was home on leave. It is kind of funny: all those combat tours without a scratch, only to be done in by a drunk driver running a stoplight. Ten years of his life deleted in one stroke.