Highway 101 was a dark strand along the California coast, all but invisible in the night and the rain. On this strand like a bright pearl was the Shoreline Diner. Zack Fuller stood by the window. Even when he shaded his eyes against the diner’s light and peered outside, he could see nothing. There were few lights on this stretch of the 101 and the storm shut out moon and stars. Nothing but midnight-in-a-mine-shaft darkness and no sound save for the rain, coming down hard, and the wind’s occasional lonely wail.
Zack placed one palm against the window to feel the chill. He rather liked these coastal winter storms. He much preferred them to the downpours of his native Louisiana; those warm rains smelled like wet plant life and reminded him too much of ‘Nam. By contrast, California storms were soothing, even inspiring at times. Some nights like these made him think he ought to try writing a book, or maybe a short story. He’d thought of an opening line — It was a dark and stormy night — but now had the uneasy feeling it might have been done before.
He turned away from the window. Two hours until closing but only five customers in the place — not surprising. No one was going out in this weather if they could help it. Four of the five he knew by sight and experience. Local teens who left their tables a mess, used foul language when ladies and kids were nearby, and never tipped. They’d long since eaten and paid, and were just killing time while waiting for the storm to die down. Zack ignored them and made his way to counter, where the fifth customer sat. A redhead, she sat with an empty plate in front of her — she’d had the Evening Breakfast Special. She had a book open but Zack had never seen her turn a page; she seemed more interested in the sketchpad she doodled on. The redhead gave Zack a quick up-and-down glance as he approached. Impossible to tell if she was pretty, for her face was half-hidden by her hair.
“Care for a refill?” Zack held up the iced tea pitcher.
“Yes, please. Is it still raining?”
“Cats and dogs.”
She glanced at the windows. Zack took the opportunity to sneak a peek at her doodlings, and was surprised by their quality — no stick figures or meaningless scribbles but detailed sketches of a saguaro cactus, a cat, the Golden Gate bridge. There were words on the sketchpad too, but he had to look away before he could read them, so she wouldn’t see he’d been peeking.
The redhead turned back to her sketchpad, biting her lower lip nervously. Zack could tell she didn’t want to venture out into the storm in search of a hotel, and he didn’t blame her. Pitching his voice low so the local quartet wouldn’t hear, he said, “Stay as long as you like. It’s not safe to be driving in this weather.”
“But you’ll be closed. I don’t want to keep you from home.”
Zack shrugged. “I’ve got insomnia.” A souvenir from ‘Nam. “And I don’t want to go out in this either.”
He thought of offering her a place to sleep. He had one — a tiny antechamber in the back among the canned goods and industrial-size boxes of flour and salt. An army cot with wool blankets, a space heater, and even a privacy curtain he’d sewn. He lay there on insomniac nights or when he and the old lady were going through a bad patch. But as he was about to offer he saw the way she regarded him — warily. Zack wondered how much of that was due to his admittedly scruffy appearance — bald head, tattoos, and long, white, braided beard. And how much of her wariness came from experience, from the telltale bump of her nose that told him it had been broken at least once.
She offered him a small smile. “Thank you. You’re very kind. I’m from Arizona, I’m not used to driving in this kind of rain.”
“Stay as long as you like.”
Zack occupied himself with cleaning the grill, brewing fresh coffee and decaf, and reading a New Orleans-set mystery titled The Jambalaya Alibi. The local quartet had run out of inane chatter. The redhead was writing something in her sketchpad. The storm had long since become white noise ignored by them all, so when the diner’s door opened with a thud, Zack started and looked up.
The man stood just inside the doorway, blinking dazedly as if astounded by the diner’s light and warmth. He was white-faced and soaked through — he might have emerged from the sea, which of course was impossible given the storm-tossed tide. He must have been walking in the rain for hours. Water dripped steadily from his clothes, his hair, the backpack he wore.
Zack walked over to the man, bringing a mug and the coffee pot with him. “God almighty, look at you,” Zack said. “Sit down and warm up.”
The man didn’t move save to look back over his shoulder. He seemed to be searching for someone. “Where did…” he said, but didn’t finish.
“It’s OK. Sit down.” Zack put a hand on the man’s shoulder — sopping wet and stone cold. When the man sat down, Zack poured some coffee. “Drink up.”
“Thank you.” The man hadn’t lost that dazed look. He sat with water pooling around him, hadn’t even taken off his backpack. He reached for the coffee mug, then with no warning slumped and toppled to the side, pitching headlong out of the booth. Zack dropped the coffee pot and caught the man bare inches before he’d have bashed his head a good one on the linoleum.
Zack grappled with the unconscious man’s dead weight while his shoes slid in rainwater and spilled coffee. He yelled over his shoulder at the local kids: “Hey, little help here!” But they were already out the door. Useless little twerps.
“Here.” The redhead helped ease the man to the floor. She checked the man’s pulse, his breathing, felt his forehead with the inside of her wrist. She did it quickly and professionally. Zack recognized that from field hospitals and the VA. “When he spoke, was it clear?” she asked.
“He didn’t slur his words?”
“No. Is it hypothermia?”
“Probably. I think it’s mild but he should go to a hospital. Where’s the nearest one?”
Miles from here, he told her, and with the weather who knew how long it would take for an ambulance to get here.
She nodded, asked if there was some place they could get him warm.
Zack flipped the diner’s sign to Closed and together they carried the man into Zack’s makeshift bedroom. They worked with the efficiency of the nurse and the soldier and soon had the man’s drenched clothes off; they laid him down on the cot with the wool blankets over him and the space heater on.
Only once did Zack see the woman taken aback — when they took off the man’s shirt and saw the scars, red lines standing out angrily against the pale skin of his inner wrists. Not old scars, either. Zack knew wounds and gauged them to be a month or two old, at most. Nearly four inches long, straight and sure. The work of a determined man. The redhead paused for a moment, then went on with her work.
When they had the man as dry and warm as they could get him, she checked his pulse and breathing again. “He’s getting some color back,” she said as she held the man’s right hand. “That’s good. I’m going to stay with him a while.”
“OK. Let me take care of this.” Zack gathered the wet clothes into a plastic bag, thinking he’d hang them up somewhere to dry. Lastly he picked up the backpack and took it with him to the diner’s main room. He sat down in a booth and after a moment’s consideration, opened the backpack.
He expected to find the belongings a sodden mess but they were in Ziploc bags and had stayed dry. The box of Ziplocs, its cardboard wet, was the topmost item. It seemed a recent purchase; Zack found tucked inside the box a barely legible receipt from a convenience store some 25 miles north of here. Surely the man hadn’t walked 25 miles in the rain? No wonder he’d toppled over.
Zack reproached himself for prying but curiosity was too strong and the bag yielded up its contents. Two sets of clothes, jeans and shirts, not laundry-fresh but not stale either. One bag most curious — it held a woman’s gauzy blue scarf, shimmering cobalt beads embroidered on it, and a green teddy bear, most of its fuzz long since worn away. Zack shivered. He knew mementoes when he saw them. The last bag was a treasure trove. House keys. A wallet. A prescription bottle — Zoloft, half full. Papers: discharge papers from a hospital, referrals to a doctor, a sheet of notepaper from a motel with several names and addresses written on it, a letter sealed and addressed but with no stamp or return address.
Zack opened the wallet. About $40 or so. Standard-issue credit cards. A driver’s license for Daniel J. Whitman of Los Cielos. Zack had the notion Los Cielos was to the south — around San Diego perhaps? Health insurance and library cards. Musician’s Union membership cards. A “Buy 10 cups, get the 11th free” card for a coffee house called Java Man — he had three more to go. Nothing that explained why Whitman was so far from home with little beyond the clothes on his back, sporting wrist scars, near to collapse with cold and exhaustion.
Feeling like a voyeur, Zack turned to the wallet’s photo insert. A Christmas studio picture of Whitman with a pretty blonde woman and a towheaded young boy, the sort of picture sent out with holiday greeting cards. Whitman was a good-looking fellow when he wasn’t impersonating a drowned rat. A picture of the boy in his preschool years, holding the green teddy bear. Zack felt a queasy thump and flipped through the remaining photos hurriedly. A group shot of the blonde woman with what looked like her siblings and parents. The boy having a toy lightsaber duel with a bespectacled man, who turned up in the next picture, a wedding portrait with him and a brunette. Are these people looking for you, Whitman? What happened? Why are you here?
The voice was soft but Zack jumped, and guiltily snapped the wallet closed.
“He’s better now,” said the redhead. “Just sleeping. I’m going to stay up with him if that’s all right.”
“Sure. You want something to eat? BLT maybe?”
“Oh, yes please.”
“I’m making a fresh pot of joe, would you like some?”
She cast a longing look at the pot. “I… I’d better not.” She made a vague gesture toward her midsection, didn’t seem to be aware she was doing it. Zack understood immediately. He was the oldest of six children and knew a breeding woman when he saw one.
Zack made the sandwich and brought it to her, along with a glass of skim milk. She was leaning over Whitman, examining his head by the light of a flashlight. Zack peered closely. “He didn’t get that bump when he fell. His head never touched the floor.”
She nodded. “He’s got a laceration too. That’s why I wanted to keep an eye on him. Pupils are dilating fine, so there doesn’t seem to be a concussion.”
Zack went back to his booth and packed Whitman’s belongings back into their Ziplocs. He picked up the backpack, intending to hang it up somewhere to dry, and as he did noticed several long green strands tangled in the backpack’s straps. Frowning, he looked at them more closely. Sea grass. On the wet clothes was more sea grass, and there was sand on the jeans, shoes, and socks.
Zack shuddered. He’d ventured out to look at the sea during these winter storms and had been amazed how fierce the gentle blue Pacific could turn. More amazed now that Whitman was here and not feeding the fish. He hung the wet things over chair backs to dry, then sat and laid his head down on the table. A long day and a longer night, and it wasn’t yet midnight. Zack didn’t mean to doze off but jerked awake at the sound.
The cry was not loud but the quality of it — the oboe tone of fear and desperation — cut through Zack’s uneasy sleep. He remembered a cry much like it, many years ago: some poor PFC stepped on a mine and wandered off mostly blind into the rice paddies where he bled out over half the night and called for his mother most of that time.
This voice wasn’t crying out for mother. It called for Sarah. And there was a phrase, one the unlucky PFC had used: Help me. Still woozy from his abrupt awakening, Zack went into the back where he found the redhead and the man holding each other. Zack couldn’t make out most of the man’s words. As for the redhead, she seemed unsure of what to say; she seemed uncomfortable in the man’s clutch. “Everything’s all right,” she said.
Whitman was having none of it. “No. Not ever.”
Nothing she said soothed him. But then she sang.
Something strange about her singing. Her voice was untrained, wobbly at times, yet a quality to it that wasn’t so much comfort as compassion. It said that she understood why he’d ended up here even if she didn’t know the exact reason. What she sang: it was slow, and strangely old-fashioned. The sort of music you’d hear from some woman in medieval clothes, playing a lute. Or so it seemed to Zack.
She sang, and held the man’s hand. A different song, one that made Zack think of long-ago Midnight Masses on Christmas eve; for a moment he even thought he caught a whiff of incense. The redhead didn’t look up at Zack — all her attention was on Whitman. He’d quieted down, lay still. Zack couldn’t tell if he was still awake. After a while Zack asked in a whisper if everything was all right, and she nodded, not taking her eyes off Whitman.