There are secrets people keep, even from themselves. But when dusk settles along the California Baja, it seeps into the desolate landscape with a hypnotic darkness that washes up on the very shores of the soul.
Neal Donnelly felt this as he nudged the ‘69 convertible Ford Mustang down the lonely Baja strip, the pale blue pony a shifting blur against the desert backdrop. His trusty 8’ longboard occasionally jostled under the far lighter 6’8” shortboard, both angled in the back seat as if pointing accusingly to God.
There was nothing to indicate this wasn’t just another aging California boy on a surf trip to the promised land of Los Cerritos where waves flowed as steadily as Tecate; except perhaps, the faraway look in his eye indicating the darkness had reached his soul.
CHAPTER 1: COASTAL CHIC, 6:15am
The beginning of the end is rarely obvious. It crept in during those long summer days like a stray in the shadows and curled up to stay, eclipsed by ripe citrus and surf.
Neal Donnelly felt it in a general sense of malaise, impalpable as the mist swirling past the bay windows. High temperature inland, marine layer at the beach. Not unusual. But it was muggy, East Coast thick, hurricane weather. Something was brewing in the Baja.
Neal stretched upward, his skin peeling reluctantly from the couch fabric. A low-six remodel and still no central AC. Plenty of throw pillows though, pillows he wasn’t even supposed to touch. He scrunched the one beneath his head to support his neck. Better. The popcorn ceiling had been replaced with whorls mimicking waves, he thought. Or maybe that’s just what he saw. He doubted Cassie would instruct the contractor––
“Put waves on the ceiling so my husband feels comfortable in his own home.”
They’d moved back into his childhood home on the cliffs of San Clemente almost two years ago, after Dad passed. It had comforted Neal to be surrounded by familiarity now that both parents were gone, feel the grooves inside his bedroom door jamb climbing toward adulthood, escape to the backyard and watch the corduroy roll in along the Orange County coastline. It didn’t last long. Cassie trailed him through both levels, dissecting the decor.
“Homey is one letter shy of homely,” she said with a raised eyebrow. At his look, she’d softened. Somewhat. “You know that’s nothing against your parents. Racks of surfboards on the wall could be considered a form of art, by some. But you use them. I thought we could have a place that reflects both of us,” she explained. “Not so, well, surf bungalow kitschy.”
Kitschy. Neal envisioned a Laguna Beach souvenir shop. He hadn’t been far off: Considered to be in poor taste due to excessive garishness or sentimentality; worthless trashy art.
It struck him cold— She sounded like her mother. When had that crept it? He’d wondered if they were coming to visit, capturing photos for the New Hampshire societal pages: Cassandra Loren Carlisle, daughter of Edward and Joan Carlisle, marries California Beach Bum. Centerfold spread. Oh, the horror! It would fly off the racks.
Neal threw his legs off the couch and ran his hands through his saltwater hair, giving it a good rub. It was getting long, curling beneath his ears in a manner that tickled. Coupled with a few days scruff, it gave him a rakish look. So she used to tell him, teasing, her lips on his. Now, she barely looked at him.
Black walnut met his feet as he moved toward the kitchen, running his hand over the pillow parade of frosted blues, ivory, gold and white layered over creamy living room furniture. The couches were flanked by thick end tables and a plank coffee table coordinated with an extendable dining room table staged for ten, all reclaimed hardwood. It was so Newport.
“Coastal chic,” she said. “Get it? It’s us. East Coast meets West.”
He got it. Just like his wife, home had become a beautiful stranger.
Hotel California: COASTAL CHIC continued here
CHAPTER 3: CALAFIA STATE PARK, 5:30pm
Rain lashed his face as if he deserved it. Neal Donnelly raced through the puddled streets, vaulted down the cement stairs to Calafia State Beach parking and sprinted through the empty lot, stopping briefly to scan for her car. Nothing. Heart pounding, he continued over the Surfliner tracks and launched down the wooden access stairs, landing with a thunk in the sand.
He swept the broad swath of beach stretching before him. North toward the San Clemente Pier. Deserted. South to Cottons Point where he’d surfed with Kimo only hours before, now a sodden canvas of gray save a slash of red on the horizon. Neal made for it, wet sand clumping to his Vans like mud. He stopped short to kick them off and continued barefooted.
Neal reached The Radio Flyer wagon, lungs burning, mind racing. It was taking on water, floating Jake’s sand toys in a puddle of grit. Water seeped into the picnic basket. Beach towels lay sodden nearby. Small blue flip flops were kicked off in succession as if Jake had stepped out of them running toward the water. He probably had.
He raised his hand to shield his eyes and scanned the shoreline. Water ran in rivulets off the bill of his Hobie hat and spattered onto the back of his hand. Something white flashed in the churning surf, disappearing quickly.
“No,” he whispered. “No no no…”
Neal sprinted toward it. Another flash. He spied one of Cassie’s marooned Coach sandals and pulled up short to grab it, reaching the shoreline as Jake’s surfboard spit up at his feet like a faithful dog, trailing red kelp from its jagged edge.
Hotel California: CALAFIA STATE PARK continued here
CHAPTER 4: THE BORDER
Neal slapped his passport in the official’s extended palm at the El Chaparral Tijuana border crossing. She scanned it and stared at the computer screen without acknowledging him. Neal supposed she’d already sized him up on approach and dismissed him—Just another surfer. Next.
California stretched behind him like a satiated lioness bedding down for the night. He stared into the sordid city before him just beginning to awaken in the gloam, lights flickering on here and there to falsely illuminate her darkness. He heard the ka-whump as the woman stamped his passport and held out his palm expectantly.
She reached out the window and pressed the passport into his palm. And then her fingers unexpectedly tightened on his.
“¿Señora?” he asked.
The woman stared at him. At him, through him, past him he didn’t know. But she didn’t look away and she didn’t let go.
“You must go back,” she said softly. “What lies ahead… There is nothing. Nothing but oceans of gray, all around you…”
She shook her head, as if negating an unheard voice. “You have grief but this is not the soft gray of sorrow I feel.”
Her grip softened and her eyes focused on his, kind eyes filled with pain certain knowledge can bring and he sensed in a strange way, it was for him.
“You will not find what you seek by escape. You have tried, no?” She nodded. “She is deep, mysterious. But be careful. Before you ask her to reveal her secrets, be sure you’re ready to know what they are…”
CHAPTER 10: The Hotel
The lobby had a regal feel to it despite its apparent age.
Oil-lamps lit the spacious entry casting a feeble glow against brocade style wallpaper, red velvet to the touch threaded with gold. It had a musty smell to it as old buildings by the sea do and there was a stillness so absolute it chilled his skin like a cemetery breeze.
“Welcome, Mr. Donnelly.”
His name spoken softly and unexpectedly startled him.
She stood in the doorway as if she’d always been, a dark whisper of a woman with soft features and hypnotic eyes of Spanish descent now aged by untold decades of time. She seemed oddly familiar yet he knew he’d never met her before, like someone he might have passed on a side street in La Paz coming from the bakery with fresh pastries for generations of children.
She might pass with a nod, perhaps a smile, but never a word. Until now.
Neal spoke and his voice sounded strange to his own ears, so long since he’d heard it.
“How did you know my name?”
“Your card, sir.” She indicated the desk and indeed, there it lay.
There was no memory of it.
This psychological thriller follows surfer, Neal Donnelly, on a road trip down the Baja to a remote hotel where mysterious events and travelers converge, forcing him to confront the dark secret that not only brought him to this place but threatens to trap him there forever.
Hotel California ©2020 Valerie Heidt
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