Illustration by Dylan Tanner
Illustration by Dylan Tanner
They were tourists.
That’s what he told the kids as they whipped through the dusk out of Portland into the foothills, the A.M. radio still dry-heaving the latest on Watergate and Vietnam through larger and larger chunks of static. He just needed a few days to figure out his next move — their next move — and what better place was there to think than the beach?
“Don’t we have school tomorrow?” Audrey asked from the backseat in the kind of incredulous tone only natural to a 16-year-old girl.
Well, Bonneville Dam it. He would have to call their schools in the morning. Did the cabin even have a phone? He really hadn’t thought this out. Ben Driscoll cinched a brand-new Parliament between his lips then punched the dash lighter a little too hard as he tried to smile into the rearview.
Audrey caught him in the mirror, one brow raised and waiting. She had inherited her mother’s stink-eye; a practical heirloom from his deceased wife.
Sam didn’t even look up from the book in his lap. With a flashlight cradled in his neck to illuminate the pages, Ben’s 12-year-old son looked older than his station. Bearded with shadow, the light playing off the wire-rimmed glasses that sat atop the eye-patch over his right eye, he looked like some kind of intellectual dwarf pirate minus the hat. Ben wondered, with his son’s sorry lot of late, if Sam raised his head for much of anything anymore.
“What’s the matter, Odd?” Ben said to his daughter. “Don’t like it when your father goes groovy? Makes an impromptu plan?”
“Ew,” his daughter said, visibly shuddering even in the dark of the station wagon. “You are so far from groovy you don’t even know how to use that word. Nobody goes groovy. Groovy is just … groovy.”
Ben sighed and checked the gas gauge. The needle was still hovering around half a tank, thank God. With the gas stations in Portland recently shuttered behind their OUT OF GAS signs thanks to OPEC, he had had to abridge his getaway plan. His buddy Rex had rented a little place outside of Cannon Beach over the last summer and had passed along the info. After laying low for a few days, they would be reborn. Now he just had to figure out how to tell the kids their old lives were dead.
As they passed the summit, it began to rain in sheets. Ben had the sensation that they were driving underwater. Next time you commit grand larceny, genius, Ben said to himself, maybe don’t do it in October?
Approaching U.S. 101, somehow the rain intensified. Ben could barely make out Sultan, their terrier mutt, whimpering in the rear of the vehicle, but Audrey was on it, turning around to comfort the dog.
“Did you know that there’s supposed to be treasure buried on Neahkahnie Mountain?” Sam said. “It’s supposed to be haunted. Cursed. People who go looking don’t come back. Can we go?”
“Yawn,” Audrey said.
Ben thought about his own ill-begotten treasure. He had stuffed $15,000 into the spare-tire well of their Plymouth Satellite. Buried beneath suitcases, picture frames, bikes, and one muddy terrier lay their future, but oh how cursed did it already feel.
Cancer doesn’t just dig one grave. It has enough gravity to sink whole clans. He had lost their house just to pay for losing his wife. Stuck in a two-bedroom with two kids, and then every morning on site there’s awful Marilyn Horn with her checkbook, erecting her family’s dream house one signature at a time.
It takes quite a while to drive from North Portland to the West Hills. Lesser men get to thinking.
By Monday Marilyn Horn would start asking about her lumber and she would find her foreman gone.
“Let’s see what the weather has in store, buddy,” Ben said, “but a hike sounds like fun. This week is all about fun. In fact, I say we play a game. Have you guys ever wanted to be someone else?”
“Only like every day of my life,” Audrey deadpanned.
The rain went full riot, and for a moment there was no way to distinguish elk from tree, and Ben just had to swallow faith that 101 was still heading south in front of them. The full moon was no help.
“Let’s pretend to be a different family,” he said.
Sam turned off his flashlight and Ben tried to blink away every psychedelic color that throbbed at his peripheral. The station wagon’s roof kept getting pummeled, and the emptiness of the passenger seat next to him had never felt so vast.
“But I like being Sam Driscoll,” Sam said.
“You sure about that, buddy?” Ben asked.
An orange light flashed above the car, revealing the dark, flailing arms of the trees at the side of the road, but Ben could not tell what direction the light had come from as the rain and sky had bled into a single thing. Seemed too low to be a plane but Ben couldn’t be sure, and they hadn’t passed another car for miles, meaning they were the only ones stupid enough to be out here.
Audrey was the first to see the stranger standing on the shoulder of the road.
“Bad night to be hitchhiking,” Ben said matter-of-factly.
“Aren’t you going to stop?” Audrey asked. “It’s pouring.”
“We’re only going a few more miles,” Ben said. “Wouldn’t do them a lot of good.”
“But I thought you were going groovy, Dad. Joining the revolution?”
“Oh, for crissakes,” Ben muttered as he pumped the breaks and guided the Satellite toward the shoulder.
“Dad,” Sam said.
“What’s that smell?” Audrey asked. “Is there a beached whale around here? I think I’m going to barf.”
Sultan began to growl.
As Ben focused, he noticed that the figure in the rain hadn’t made a move toward the car. He wasn’t even looking in their direction but at the tree line instead.
“Dad,” Sam said.
His arms were at his side. Had he even stuck his thumb out?
“Dad!” Sam said more emphatically.
He had no bag. No jacket. Just a soaked Pendleton plaid buttoned to his Adam’s apple, and something else . . . draping off his arms. Ben immediately thought of limp tentacles, as if this stranger were wearing a dead octopus like a shawl. He had no face. Was he wearing a mask? Ben thought he could see wet tufts of dark hair, an earlobe peeking through the covering. No, not a mask, but a wrapping, heavy with rain and soil and eclipsing his entire head. He was just eyes and a mouth embraced by gauze.
“Dad!” Sam said. “Is that a mummy!?”
Then, quick as a jolt of lightning, this thing was at the front passenger door, smacking the window and shivering the handle as it moaned in some sort of guttural cow dialect. Audrey screamed and Sultan barked incessantly. Had Ben remembered to lock the door? As perverse silver linings go, he realized that he had stopped unlocking that door after Jessica died. Ben peeled out onto the highway, but the thing persisted, running the length of the station wagon, and smearing the rear passenger-door window with a viscous liquid emitted from its bandaged palm that resembled chocolate pudding.
It would be another two miles before Audrey stopped screaming, Sultan stopped barking, and Sam would unfold himself from the fetal position to watch the rain wash the smear of goo off his window.
Ben welcomed back the persistent sound of the rain on the roof. On the radio, Nixon still refused to hand over his Oval Office tapes to Archibald Cox.
“Dad?” Sam asked. Ben looked at his son in the mirror. He had taken off his glasses, but his right eye remained behind the patch. “Was that a monster?” he asked.
Ben couldn’t say. He didn’t know exactly what a monster looked like.
* * *
Rex had said the Surf’s End House was cozy, which, in real estate, means small. This place wasn’t cozy, it was rustic, which, in real estate, means dilapidated. Located at the dead end of a short access road, Ben had noticed only one other property on the street as they drove up.
Rain had been punching this place into the sand for years. Buckling slightly through the middle, wild vegetation bookended either side with what appeared to be the pressure of a vice. The worn, cracked shingles of the siding dripped with black lichen, as if the house had been crying though mascara. The station wagon’s headlights exposed a patchwork of fuzzy green moss up on the roof. Ben could see a single fern growing up there too next to the chimney. Besides the fern, the house also came with a stone-faced old man sitting on the covered porch, a shotgun resting on his lap.
“7649 Carronade Lane,” Ben said as he double-checked the slip of paper he had written Rex’s directions on. “I guess this is it?”
“Can we just go home?” Audrey pleaded.
“But we’ve come all this way,” Ben said, to which Sam added, “And what if he’s still out there?,” which is what they’d all really been thinking.
Ben tossed up the hood of his yellow rain jacket and got out of the station wagon. The man on the porch stood with some difficulty. Ben noticed that he walked with a severe limp running through his right leg and that he used the shotgun barrel-down against the porch as a makeshift cane.
“Evening,” Ben said.
“You must be the happy vacationers,” the man said. “Welcome to the beach.”
“Pete Archer,” Ben said, slipping on his alias for the first time out loud.
“Earl Sloane,” the man said. “I guess you could say that I’m the caretaker around here.”
“Earl,” Ben said. “I’m a little confused here. This is 7649 Carronade? I thought this was the Surf’s End House?”
“Nah,” Earl said. “Surf’s End is down at the other end of the block.” Earl lifted the shotgun to point into the darkness over Ben’s shoulder and Ben instinctively flinched. “Easy there.” Earl chuckled. “You passed it on your way up. They must’ve just given you my address because I have the key.”
Rex hadn’t said anything about a caretaker, just that the key would be under the mat, but Ben could only shrug it off at this time of night. And really, the place down the block had looked a lot better cared for than this dump. Apparently, Earl didn’t like to bring his work home with him.
Earl disappeared into the house and emerged some time later, key in hand. “Holler if you need anything. Hopefully you’ll get a good night’s sleep. If I do say, you look a little shaky, Pete. Long drive from … ?”
“Spokane,” Ben lied. “Yeah, long drive, bad weather, and we saw something … strange.” Ben couldn’t help but overshare. He’d been holding it together to keep the kids from falling apart, but what he had seen had spooked him to his core.
“Just north of town,” Ben continued. “We saw this hitchhiker. Well, I guess I can’t say for sure he was a hitchhiker, but it was pouring rain so we slowed down. And his face—”
“Wrapped up in bandages?” Earl interrupted.
Ben nodded. “How’d you know?”
Earl furrowed his brow and sighed as he looked down at the porch. “That would be my son, Billy,” he said. “He must’ve sensed you’d be coming my way. He’s always looking for a ride home.”
“What happened to him?”
Earl shrugged and tapped his right leg with the shotgun. “Tree got him,” he said. “You log enough woods, tree’s gonna get you. I took mine in the leg. Poor Billy took his in the brain.”
“Jesus,” Ben said. “Shouldn’t he be in a hospital?”
Earl raised his eyebrow and gave Ben a puzzled look. “I don’t think you get me, Pete. Billy’s been dead for a number of years now. It just doesn’t stop him from trying to make it home every now and then.”
“Wait,” Ben said. “Are you telling me he’s a ghost?”
Earl sighed again and rested heavier on the shotgun. “I’m trying to tell you that he’s dead. I don’t go putting names to things I don’t understand.”
“Right,” Ben said. He was filled with a sudden motivation to exit this porch, but Earl still had the key. “So? We’re done here?”
“Let’s see,” Earl said, shifting his weight. “Check out time is noon next Friday. Just put your dirty linens and towels in the washer. No need to start it. The phone only makes local calls. And you were told about the murders?”
“Well, technically the state police call them disappearances, but come on. Dogs disappear around here all the time. Cats too. Three separate families don’t just disappear from the same house over twenty years without some murder going on. Leaving all their belongings behind? Their cars? People just don’t do that.”
“I thought you didn’t put names on things you don’t understand?”
“Exactly,” Earl said. “Look, I don’t mean to make you uneasy, but I see you’ve got your kids with you there. It’s not too late for you to go back into town and get yourself a motel room.”
Ben relaxed as he realized Earl’s angle. For some reason, Earl Sloane didn’t want them here. All this talk of ghosts and murder — well, that was just a local razzing an out-of-towner. Next the old kook would probably tell him Haystack Rock was built by aliens. Even the guy out on the highway could be in on it. He wasn’t sure how, but that seemed more plausible than being attacked by this guy’s dead son.
“We’ll take our chances,” Ben said.
Earl dangled the key out in front of him. “Be my guest, Pete. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Oh, and stay out of the basement. That’s the owner’s private area.”
Back in the car, Audrey turned to him. “Well?”
“Let’s not bother Mr. Earl Sloane for the rest of the week.”
* * *
Like he suspected, the Surf’s End House hardly looked like the site of multiple, ghastly murders: white picket fence, sturdy gray shingles on a good one-story skeleton, two bulbous hydrangeas out front — not exactly the kind of set-up to inspire fear and dread. The yard was littered with flotsam — buoys, glass floats, driftwood — as if some tender tsunami had washed it all across the tiny parcel and left it just so.
Inside, the large single room was dressed in knotty pine, with a wood stove in one corner. It was separated from an open kitchen by a matching pine bar. Down a short hallway doorways for three bedrooms and a bath popped open as the kids explored. There was the expected coastal ephemera hanging on the walls: a few prints of seascapes, pithy beach messages done up in needlepoint. Quite a few throw rugs and an assortment of plush furniture softened the spank of the hardwood floors. Built-in cabinets. Even a color TV. In fact, it was all quite tastefully done, except—
“What’s that smell?” Audrey asked.
Ben had noticed it too when they walked in. It was faint, but ever-present, sharp and saline like a fouled brine. Just as Ben would begin to forget about it, the smell would return, retrieved like an unwanted memory, prickling his nostrils into hard O’s.
“Different places have different smells, Odd,” he said. “You probably won’t even notice it when you wake up in the morning. And if it is a dead squirrel, I’m sure Sultan will let us know.”
Of course, after he got the kids in bed, he immediately shimmied the knob of the basement door, but it was deadbolted. So he poured himself another bourbon, pining to see how the honeyed firelight from the wood stove would dance off Jessica’s auburn hair. A couple more bourbons and a half-filled ashtray nearly erased the cottage’s wandering stench and the bad taste that Earl Slone had left in Ben’s mouth. A ghost? Really? He replayed the meaty smack of the creature’s palm against the car’s window until the network broadcast bid adieu for the night with the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Smack! That’s about as corporeal as they come.
As the broadcast settled into static, he listened to the rain spray the house. He didn’t trust Earl Sloane enough to leave $15,000 in a parked car. But where else could he stash it away from both Earl and the kids? He fingered the seams of the knotty pine, but nothing gave. The kitchen cabinets were too likely to be explored. There was a foot of air under the platform bed in his room which left little to the imagination. So he began to rummage through the built-ins, discovering a Bible on a bed of seashells, a local area guide, a drawer full of machine parts, some extra beach towels, a crab pot, a collection of 8-tracks that ranged from country to doo wop, a guest log, a misplaced set of tongs, and, in the bottom drawer, a heap of skulls reeking of dust and death.
Vertebrates. Animals. Critters. Trophies? The waft from the drawer was arid, deep, and unlike the stench that had been following him around the house. He counted seventeen, all various shapes and sizes. Maybe a deer, maybe a raccoon or two, nothing human, but maybe some of these registered too familiar.
Sultan had tuckered himself out sniffing the baseboards and lay dead asleep atop the throw pillow Ben had set on the floor. He pulled one skull from the drawer and set it near Sultan’s sleeping head as his hand shook at the eerie similarity.
* * *
He will forget how squishy they are when they open. He will never remember how good its steam felt on his chin as the cold rain soaked his covered head. He will not remember shivering. He will never take solace in the luck of this lost cub stirring at the shore of this lapping river; how it went limp in his grip. He will never relish the hot fat smeared into the gauze around his mouth. There is only eat, cold, and home in the moonlight.
He does remember the tree avalanching toward him. And them. The orange light that sifted him into a silver bed. The cuffs. How they petted him until he healed. He couldn’t recall how many times he had walked into the orange light. Outside of it, it was only eat, cold, and the moon. He will find a ride home.
He will not remember seeing the orange light appear again, hovering like a 3,000-pound firebug above the tree line. Afraid, he will flee the riverbank, forfeiting the young sea lion to the sand, its taste still wrapped around his lips. Why will they keep coming for him? Why will they not let him die?
* * *
With the weather cleared, they spent the day swamping across a soggy side of Neahkahnie Mountain, encountering poison oak on a few occasions, but no treasure. No gas either. They drove into Cannon Beach proper on fumes for dinner.
“Why are there so many missing dogs?” Audrey asked, pointing at one of the telephone poles slathered with a phone number and a photo of an absent Scottie. “Is it like a dog plague?”
Ben held his tongue as well as the leash, the end of which Sultan was really testing. “It’s not a dog plague, Odd.”
They found a place to nosh fish and chips while staring at Haystack Rock.
“So,” Audrey began, “if the President is a criminal, why should any other American not just do whatever they need to get ahead? I mean, it’s like the law almost.”
Ben gulped his beer wrong, coughed, and wondered if Audrey was implying something about their situation. She was not a stupid girl, and he felt she could see his muddy fingerprints all over her life.
“Mortality,” Sam answered.
“I think you mean morality, buddy,” Ben interjected.
Audrey scoffed at her brother’s mistake and let her eye wander across the puddled patio to find a table of teenagers her own age — three boys and a girl. One of the boys, his hair the color of wet sand, was staring right at her as his friends talked. She blushed and looked away, but when she returned, his eyes were still trained on her. A third and fourth glance away didn’t stop him. Who does that? It was so forward. So confident. Could she do that too?
“Well, it’s been a pleasure making mud with you gentlemen today,” she said, “but I think I need to speak with my own species.”
Ben followed her line of vision across the patio, the first time the boy had shied away, and Ben groaned deeply enough to wake up Sultan at his feet.
“I don’t know, Odd.”
“This is exactly what Suzy Archer, of Spokane, would do,” she said.
The Pete in him understood.
“Then be my guest,” he said, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
As she sashayed across the patio, shedding dirt from her boots, her body bolted electric on what Suzy Archer was all about. It was liberating, like crawling into a new skin. The group stopped talking as she approached their table. She looked right at the sandy-haired blond boy, ran her fingers through his hair, and said, “Help me! My name is Suzy Archer. I am from Spokane, Washington. I think my dad is losing his mind.”
“Take a seat, Suzy A.!,” the girl said. “Yeah,” one of the guys said, “Suzy A.!” When she sat down, she felt the last of Audrey Driscoll expel through her nose. She wasn’t sure who was left, but she wanted to find out.
Ben watched his daughter meet-cute, before shaking his head and turning to his son.
“I’m sorry we didn’t find any treasure,” Ben said.
“I don’t care about the treasure,” Sam said. “Hey, if I have to be Aaron Archer, shouldn’t Sultan get a new name too?”
“What about King?”
Ben laughed into the end of his beer.
“Are you okay, Dad?”
“Oh yeah, fine,” Ben said. “That sounds great. So you really didn’t care about the treasure?”
Sam shook his head.
“Then what were you up to? Why are we all boot-deep in mud?”
Sam kept his eye pointed at the table. “I was looking for a ghost,” he said. “I need to know that they are real.”
Ben lumped, and sucked in a great deal of air through his nose.
“Is this about mom?”
Sam nodded. “I miss her.”
“Me too, buddy.” Ben swallowed the last splash of his beer and patted Sam’s shoulder. “Me too.”
Sam started crying out of his one good eye, which made Ben just fall apart. A boy should be able to cry out of two eyes. He already regretted saying what he was about to say, but he couldn’t stop himself. “You know our neighbor, Earl?”
Sam wiped a big streak of snot onto his sleeve, and said, “Not really.”
“Well, Earl thinks that thing we saw out on the highway is a ghost.”
“Yeah?” Sam perked up.
Ben nodded, but Sam’s face went dark. “What is it?”
“Do you think all ghosts are like that one?” he asked.
“Probably not,” Ben said.
Ben paid the check and then called across the patio, “Suzy, let’s jet!”
“I’ve got it, Dad,” she said. “Jessie will give me a ride later.”
“And this Jessie knows how to get you home?”
“It’s not our home,” she said. “But yeah.”
Ben groaned again, but held his tongue. Pete Archer was the kind of man who didn’t want to raise a fuss.
As they walked back to the car, Ben noticed some crime scene tape roping off a slab of the beach as a yellow excavator lifted the corpse of a German Sheppard out of the falling sand. It was stiff, with all four legs extended like some furry end table set upside down.
“Well,” Sam said. “I guess we know what happened to those missing dogs.”
Not all of them, Ben thought.
To be continued in Part II …
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