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’ Stewart 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 mist drifting past the bay windows, shrouding the beaches below in a mythical netherworld. High temperature inland, marine layer at the beach. Not unusual. But it was muggy, East Coast thick, hurricane weather. Whatever was brewing in the Baja, it was closing in.
He stretched upward, his skin peeling reluctantly from the couch. A six-figure 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.
The popcorn ceiling had been replaced with swirls 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.
He eyed the door across the hall, closed. Good. It wasn’t always. More often than not when he crept downstairs to curl up on the couch the door was cracked open, just enough. Sometimes more than enough.
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.
That was how she first tried to fix things, throw money at it.
Neal paused at the stairs, listening for a rattle of prescription pills from the master bedroom, the creak of Jake’s bed. It was easier this way, planting a morning kiss before it could be slapped away, make-believing he had a happy wife and a child who curled in his lap during SpongeBob and baseball, cheeks sticky from popsicles and kisses.
He had little time for indulging wishes and fairytales these days— Shelved indefinitely. A word he hated. Twin of someday. Sister towns in far-off Neverland. These were unfamiliar places to an only child. At 33, he was already nostalgic.
A click sounded behind him accompanied by a soft rustle. Neal caught the scent of White Tea as she approached.
Morning,” she said softly.
Adela padded into the kitchen in cut-offs and a sky blue tank that played off her eyes. Thick, red hair fell in finger curls around tanned bare shoulders, courtesy of Mother Nature, she said.
She picked up the coffee pot and held it under the refrigerator spigot for cold, filtered water.
“I meant to do this last night,” she said by way of apology. The smattering of freckles over the bridge of her nose and shoulders were pronounced. She’d been taking Jake to the beach a lot this summer. Neal felt a rush of gratitude.
“Thank you,” he said. “For taking care of us— Jake, I mean.”
Adela met his gaze. She knew what he meant. “It’s my pleasure.”
Neal climbed the stairs, ending the potential for further interaction. It was a strange alliance, orbiting around each other like soldiers on neutral ground. State your purpose: Husband. Nanny. You have your orders, I have mine. Carry on.
Top of the stairs was Jake’s room, once his. It was one of the few places that hadn’t been included in the remodel. Neal had insisted. The kid needed a familiar place without disruption, maybe he did, too.
He crept inside and knelt beside the bed. Jake was fast asleep on his side, lashes pressed against rounded cheeks, raggedy blue dog, “Bu,” clutched to his chest, the patchwork quilt Mom made him as a boy, “Kit,” tossed to the side. Jake’s two Must Haves.
A light sweat sheened his forehead. Neal pushed aside the sheets he’d tucked around him the night before and laid his palm gently on Jake’s shoulder, feeling the boy’s small frame rise and fall with each breath. He wanted to clutch him to his chest as tightly as the raggedy blue dog but those days of careless hugs, brief as autumn in a mountain town, were gone with the grip of autism. Neal felt a desperate sort of love in these moments when he could be with him as a father, not an intrusion. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt the solid presence of his son or his wife in his arms. They were shadows drifting in each others’ lives, form without substance. With Cassie he didn’t know if that was lingering postpartum or resentment. Maybe both.
Neal, I don’t know if I’m ready for this…
We’ll throw the kid in a backpack and head to Brazil.
They had staked their dreams on that statement, built their lives on the wobbly legs of hope only to have a toddler kick it out from under them.
Shrieking tantrums was one thing, turning that turmoil on himself was another. Jake boxed his ears and beat his head and left them in a paralyzed state of uncertainty. The day Cassie received a black eye for carrying him on the Surfliner for a trip to the San Diego Zoo was the day she came home, beaten. The clay handprint on the wall would not hang for her.
It might’ve worked if the return was sticky-finger macaroni art in Cassie’s honor but slapping away her attempts at motherhood destroyed what little maternal instinct she had. The autism diagnosis did little to entice her to try harder; if anything, it cemented their fears. No amount of love would coax spontaneous affection and wanderlust from their child; no, love was calling them to a different life of sacrifice and routine.
That’s when Cassie retreated into the attic of her own mind and locked the door.
That’s when Neal picked up the phone and made the call.
“Love you, J—.” Neal gave his shoulder a squeeze and rose to his feet. Next week, Jake started Montessori preschool, child-centered education tailored to his needs. It would build a bridge into their son’s private world. It had to. Autism would not best him. Or Jake.
A murmur shifted his attention. Voices? Neal stepped into the hallway and froze. Their bedroom door was ajar— He was certain it hadn’t been before, it so seldom was. An invitation, then?
Cassie stood at the bedroom window, staring into the gray nothingness at something he couldn’t see. If she’d been on the phone, there was no sign of it.
She turned toward him, a slight silhouette at the window, gray swirling behind her. She spoke first, her voice thin as if the words cut.
“If our emotions make us human, then what have I become?”
Her gaze fluttered to the prescription bottles cluttered on the nightstand and back to him, waiting. Was she baiting him?
“Cassie,” he stepped forward, wanting to take her in his arms. He resisted, knowing she’d tense or worse, push him away. What to say? It had all been said. He’d erred on the wrong side too many times, his “atta girl” attitude only fanning the flames of resentment she carried within–
We can get through this together, right Neal? WE said that about having a child, too! WE didn’t have a fucking clue, did we?
“My parents think I don’t remember the orphanage but I do,” she continued. “I remember the smell, like bleach and old books, but not how it made me feel. I don’t feel anything, Neal. I know how I should feel, but…”
She shrugged and returned her gaze to the unseeing window.
“There was a girl who slept in the bed next to me. She had a stuffed doll with braids and a red and white checked sundress. She called it Lily. It had a face like porcelain and a lazy eye that didn’t click open all the way, like it was thinking about something else while she made it dance, made it sit, made it walk. I was convinced it came alive when no one was watching. And so I watched it. And when I grew tired of watching it, I took it and threw it out the window. I remember it lying on the street with the other rubbish, knowing that’s where it belonged. She was so upset, she cried and cried. But I truly believed I’d saved her life.”
Cassie turned to him, a half smile played her lips then vanished. “Even then, I had the best intentions for doing what I did.”
It was the most she’d said to him in weeks and it coiled in his stomach, cold and threatening as a venomous snake. Her beauty was pulled taught across delicate features hollowed by shadows — Dear God, where was the girl he met? That girl stepped through the throng of beach blonds at Salt Creek Beach like a flamingo amongst shorebirds, dark locks cascading down a frothy, mermaid green sundress that swirled around her ankles when she walked. She seemed so ethereal when she tipped back her wide brimmed sunhat to gaze up at him on the lifeguard stand with startling eyes of the same color, he was surprised to hear her speak.
“Huh?” he said.
“You don’t know? Or you didn’t hear me?”
“Uh…A red flag means dangerous conditions. Green… Green means go.”
That smile. “I’m wearing green…”
Cassandra Loren Carlisle was worldly and refined in a manner foreign to him. A New Hampshire girl, she hailed from a family who poured blue blood from a silver Baptism pitcher.
It was her eyes that gave her away.
She was the product of a sympathy trip to the orphanages of Brazil, no doubt a public relations trip to enhance a flagging public image for The Carlisles and encourage donations which were nonetheless procured upon her arrival. Cassie knew little of her birth parents but believed them gypsies of a sort.
She was like no woman he’d ever met and he’d fallen hard, right into those emerald depths and there he remained, trapped like a perch in a frozen pond.
Cassie reached out and palmed his cheek, her hand frail as tissue paper.
“I love you, Neal,” she said.
Neal pressed his hand over hers, bothered. It would be the last time he felt her touch.
CHAPTER 3: CALAFIA STATE PARK, 5:30pm
Rain lashed his face as if he deserved it. Neal 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.
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.
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 San Ysidro 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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