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Just Past Oysterville: Chapter One

October 28, 2007

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Just Past Oysterville: Shoalwater Book One

by PERRY P. PERKINS

Prologue

In the darkness, he feels the chill water seeping through his boots with the rising tide. Frigid rain, peppered with sleet, stings his face, numbing his fingers until he can no longer feel the bottle as it slips from his grasp, draining its last inch of bourbon into the sand. He stares, unseeing, into the blackness, weeping in the bitter, salty air.

Thunder crashes, mingling with the distant roar of the surf. The revolver comes from his pocket warm and heavy in his hand, like a living thing. The man sways drunkenly in the wind, caressing his cheek with the revolver. He curses, sobbing her name into the wind as the barrel comes to rest against his temple.

Then, with a sigh, he squeezes the trigger, the shot echoing with the thunder as the hammer falls.

Chapter One

“I am an orphan,” she whispered.

Cassie Belanger watched as her mother’s casket was lowered into the sandy desert soil. The sky was blue, bright and sharp at noon; already it was nearly seventy degrees and still February in Bowie, Arizona. By June, Cassie knew, the heat at midday would be unbearable.

A dry north wind whispered sand over the toes of her shoes, carrying the faintest scents of juniper and sage. It seemed very quiet, standing there on the wide marble-pocked lawn listening to the squeak of the pulleys as they brought the body of forty-two year old Kathy Belanger, clad in her best purple only-for-church dress, to her final resting place.

A single blue carnation, from the high pile of flowers heaped atop, slipped from the casket lid and fell softly into the concrete lined grave below. Cassie watched as it tumbled end over end into the darkness that waited to receive her mother’s body. Her mind was still in free fall, her world had changed so suddenly, so dramatically, and she couldn’t, at least she hadn’t yet, been able to grasp the enormity of it.

The service had been brief. Pastor Williams intoning the Lord’s blessing on Katherine Belanger, his voice echoing flatly in the thin desert air. He spoke of her mother’s life, of her faith and her sudden tragic end.

A step from a dark curb; from the same corner of the same street that she crossed five nights out of seven, coming home in the early morning hours, her heavy wool jacket hiding starched nurse’s whites. A mile-long walk from Bowie’s Adventist Hospital to the Desert Rose trailer park where a dozen and a half decaying trailers housed the most desperate rung of Bowie’s dwindling population.

“A step from the curb and into the arms of God” Guy Williams had said, as he stood at the pulpit and addressed the handful of somber clad co-workers, neighbors and friends.

Cassie had cringed at this; it wasn’t the arms of God that had awaited her mother as she stepped into the street, not by a long shot. She heard again squealing tires and the sickening crumple of metal on flesh, the sounds that haunted her dreams.

She’d listened, dry-eyed. Her heart aching, her eyes burning to weep, but it wouldn’t happen.

*

Sheriff Pranger had knocked on the tin door of the old singlewide that she and her mother shared. Cassie had opened the door and there he’d stood, in the predawn darkness, nervous hands turning his hat over and over, his eyes never meeting her own as he mumbled an uncomfortable greeting.

“Better go get your coat, Honey,” he’d said, fighting the urge to look away, “and come with us.”

Over his shoulder, Cassie had seen Guy and Grace Williams in the shadows, clothing rumpled as though thrown on in haste. Pastor Williams stood, tight-lipped and pale, as his wife pressed her face into his shoulder and wept.

Cassie had known, as she turned to find a coat and shoes, that her mother was dead. She had shed her tears, weeping silently into her pillow, as she lay awake on the twin bed in the Williams’s spare room. Then, this morning, she’d dashed from the arrangement office of the mortuary and into the ladies room, overcome by a storm of tears. She’d sat on the cushioned bench, her head lain against the cool wall of the restroom, her small frame wracked with sobs, and her face burning with tears until she felt as though she were choking on them, drowning in her grief.

She was an orphan.

Could it have been only a week earlier that she and her mother had been shopping together, chatting and laughing as they searched for a new school outfit; the one that Cassie would wear to her college orientation?

Portland, Oregon seemed a world away, a cool, forested, rainy place far to the west. It was there that Cassie had sent her transcripts, hoping to begin her dream of writing at the University. Only a week before, she and her mother had laughed and cried together at the thought of her leaving.

She had hoped to begin school with the spring term, and orientation was just two weeks away, a frenzied handful of days to pack and say goodbyes. Only a week before…

The days leading up to the service had been a blur. Even in her grief, Cassie knew that if she stayed, if she didn’t catch a bus, right now, and escape the confines of this dusty little town, she might never escape at all. Her writing might forever remain a dream.

So she had talked to their Pastor, Guy, and to her mother’s best friend, his wife, Grace. Guy had listened as Cassie poured out her hopes and dreams, her fears and reasonings, nodding silently throughout, and then assured her that she must; in fact, that she would be on that bus. Then they’d packed up the Belanger’s few belongings, loading them into the church van and hauling them to the Williams’ to be stored, as Cassie filled a duffel bag with the few items she would need for her trip.

*

The night before, after clearing the dishes from the William’s dining table, Grace had privately tried to talk her out of going so soon. She’d begged her to wait until the summer, or better, the fall, to give her grief some time to heal. Cassie sat, listening to the length and breadth of Grace’s argument, but not for a moment considering it.

As she’d glanced around the warmth of the Williams’s home, her mind had flooded with the memories of better times. How many nights had she and her mother eaten dinner at that same table, or played board games, roaring with laughter at Guy’s flagrant attempts to cheat? How many movies had they watched, piled onto the big, faded sectional in the living room, scattering popcorn across the carpet?

How many times had the five of them just sat and talked?

Talked about what was happening in their little town, about Guy’s latest sermon, who had listened and who hadn’t, or just about life, and what hand it was dealing each of them.

Cassie had slept poorly that night, waiting for her exhaustion to overwhelm her. The spare room had been Kenneth’s, Guy and Grace’s son, before he had joined the Air Force, as evidenced by the posters of fighter jets and rock stars taped to the walls. A battered stereo sat atop a child-sized roll top desk, paperback novels and compact discs were scattered across the rest. Grace had aired the room and it carried just the hint of Kenny’s cologne. Cassie stared out the window at a great, yellow, harvest moon and thought about the Williams family, who had been her surrogate aunt, uncle, and cousin since before she could remember.

Grace had offered her home and heart, permanently, and as much as it had hurt Cassie to do so, she’d turned her down. It wasn’t just for fear of missing her opportunity, though that was real enough. She knew she must leave because of what she had found in the bottom drawer of her mother’s dresser.

A faded manila envelope, buried beneath a pile of faded sweaters, had contained an old, yellowing marriage certificate.

The single page, heavily creased and water stained, had been legible enough to decipher as being the record of her parent’s marriage. It looked to be the original and included their places and dates of birth, and occupations.

Cassie felt her eyes stinging as she read her father’s name in print for the first time. William Alfred Beckman.

The second item nestled beneath her mother’s sweaters, shocked her even more. The handgun was a large caliber, maybe a .38, or a .357; Cassie wasn’t familiar enough with revolvers to tell the difference.

The hole at the end of the short, blued barrel seemed enormous, as she gingerly set the gun on the bed beside her. She could see that it was loaded and a curious little padlock filled the trigger space. The lock had a keyhole in the center of it, but there was no key with the gun. Cassie was certain the ring of keys that the hospital nurse had given her, the ones from her mother’s pocket, would have a key to fit that lock.

She had never known her mother to use a handgun, and she had never touched one.

There was a small, framed certificate on Cassie’s bureau that she had earned years before at Girl Scout camp. She’d been given the NRA Marksman award after proving her competency with a .22 rifle on the camp’s shooting range. In an area with as many rattlesnakes as Bowie, it was wise to know how to shoot a rifle safely. Cassie stared at the carved wooden grips of the big revolver, and then called for Guy.

He had recognized the gun right away, and smiled, carefully pointing the barrel at the floor and unloading the fat cartridges from the cylinder.

“I helped your mom pick out this gun,” he had said. “I tried to talk her into something a little smaller, like a .22 magnum, or a .380, but she wanted this one,” Guy laughed suddenly, “and boy-oh-boy could she shoot it! We must have killed a thousand pop cans out past the quarry, your mother, Grace, and I.”

Cassie was shocked.

“My Mom…” she asked incredulously, “shot this gun?”

“Sure,” replied Guy, “she was an ace, I never understood how she could shoot a big .357 like that with those thin wrists of hers, but she did. Not long after she moved here, we went up to Tucson and took a handgun class, got verified and everything,” the pastor sighed.

“We used to go out to the quarry ‘most every weekend and target shoot,” he said. “It was cheap entertainment back then.”

Cassie had stared at the revolver a little fearfully.

“I guess,” Guy continued, “that this old hand-cannon is yours now, but I’m going to lock it up for safekeeping. If you decide you want to shoot it let me know and we’ll go out to the quarry with Grace. If you like, sometime when you’re back from school, we can go up to Tucson and you can take that safety course. After that, if you want it, it’s yours to take.”

“Well,” Cassie said, still dazed at this side of her mother that she had never known, “Let me think about it, I’m sure I’ll want it eventually, maybe after I get out of school.”

“That’ll be just fine,” Guy said, picking up the now-empty weapon and slipping it into the pocket of his jacket. He gathered the shells and put them in the other pocket.

“I’ll get it cleaned up and oiled before I put it away,” he said, “looks like your Mom kinda let it go the last few years…”

Guy’s voice faltered and the room filled with silence, and she realized that her pastor and his wife must have been suffering almost as much as she, having been her mother’s best friends since before Cassie could remember.

Finally, Guy slapped his knees with his palms and stood.

“Well,” he said, “these boxes aren’t going to pack themselves…”

“Guy?” Cassie had whispered, unable to look up and meet his eyes, “Why did Mom want a gun like that?”

There was a long pause and after a few moments Cassie thought he wasn’t going to answer. Finally, clearing his throat, he spoke.

“Well Cass,” he’d said, “sometimes it can be scary living on your own, especially with a little one in the house. Way out here on the edge of town, you want to feel safe…”

There was another long pause, but he left the sentence hanging, slowly walking out of the bedroom. Cassie could hear the quiet, unintelligible murmur, as Guy spoke to his wife. Then the sound of moving and taping boxes resumed. Cassie wasn’t sure how she felt about Guy’s answer, but she knew this; there was more to it than he’d told her.

Sitting there, Cassie had pulled the marriage certificate back out of her pocket. For some reason she hadn’t wanted Guy or Grace to see it. She unfolded it once more and studied her father’s handwriting on the faded page, listening to the windy scratch of sand, like cat fur, whispering past the aluminum walls.

William Beckman, she read again, a man she had never met and of whom her mother refused to speak. His date of birth didn’t mean much to her, nor did the listing of his occupation as a fisherman; what started her heart beating hard was the cryptic entry for his place of birth. There, in what Cassie assumed was her father’s own rough script, were the words Just past Oysterville, WA.

The strange phrase had stuck in her consciousness like a burr, and she read the line over and over, sitting on the edge of her mother’s bed as their meager belongings were loaded into apple boxes from the Bowie Grocery.

Just past Oysterville, did it mean that William Beckman had been born somewhere called Oysterville? If so, why not just write that? If he had been born in the next town, why not put the name of that town? Cassie rescued her mother’s atlas of the world from a box full of books and had found Oysterville at the very tip of the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. Her discovery, however, only added to the confusion, there was nothing past Oysterville except for the Pacific Ocean to the West and Willapa Bay to the East.

As Cassie sat, the tattered atlas across her knees and a numb void of loss shadowing her heart, a sudden need, dark and simmering, flickered within her.

What if she went to this place, this Oysterville, and found somebody there who had known her parents, maybe even knew her father’s whereabouts? Could she find him? Could she track this William Beckman down and let him know the wife he had abandoned had lived and breathed and struggled and sacrificed to raise his child? That she had worked three jobs to put food in the belly of the daughter he had walked away from, and carved out a life in a run-down old trailer on the edge of the desert?

She could, no, she would tell him!

For her mother and for herself she would find this man and tell him that Katherine Belanger was dead. He would ask how, and what would she tell him?

Alone, in the cold early hours of morning, she had been struck by a drunk driver and left lying, broken and bleeding, in the street.

A drunk driver who had, himself, been found dead an hour later, hopelessly crushed beneath the crumpled remains of his Cadillac, in a ditch along Interstate 10.

The fine white pages of the atlas had crumpled unconsciously in her fists.

No, she thought fiercely, I won’t tell him anything, except that she’s dead. She would tell him this and then turn and walk away, as he had walked away.

When Cassie had closed and locked the door of that shabby, rented trailer for the last time, it was with a burning sense of purpose. That purpose had warmed her as she walked through the cold night to her borrowed room at the Williams’ house.

She would find out, for herself, who and what were just past Oysterville.

*

Cassie had made her plans, even as those around her took care of the details of her mother’s funeral. As much as she disliked the idea of lying to the Williams, she would do so, cashing in her ticket at the bus station and thumbing rides all the way to the West Coast.

The small amount of money she had saved for college (this she had already transferred to a Portland bank) now included the few hundred dollars that had remained in her mother’s savings account. With the cash from the bus ticket, she was sure she could spend the next several months searching for her father.

She had called the University and, despite what she had told Grace, there would be no problem holding her loan, and enrolling in the later, Fall courses.

Now, just a day later, as she stood under the bright blue awning that shielded her mother’s casket from the sun, Cassie began to doubt. She wondered what she’d really say when she found him, if she found him.

Guy had often said, while standing behind the pulpit of the Bowie Baptist Church, that there was a place within each of us designed for love. That nothing else, not money, or fame or power would fill that void. Most of the bad that was in the world, he said, came about from the futile attempt to fill that place with something besides love.

Cassie suspected that hating her father wouldn’t fill it either, but could there be more? She shook her head as the last blue flowers disappeared into the darkness of the grave. She didn’t know, and she didn’t want to know. For now, hate would have to be enough. As her life in Bowie, Arizona ended, she felt in her pocket for the folded copy of the marriage certificate, her first step, her only clue to finding her father.

As for what she would do when she found him, she would, as Kathy Belanger had been fond of saying, burn that bridge when she came to it.

*

Those who had words to say said them and the graveside memorial ended.

Guy saw Cassie standing near the edge of the canopy, next to his old station wagon, nodding absently as the line of well-wishers slowly passed, murmuring their condolences.

She looked, to him, like one of those dogs with the bobbing heads that you put in the back window of your car. Just nodding and nodding, eyes glassy and vacant, the lights are on, the power’s running, but the folks have gone to Florida, thank you and please leave a message.

Guy ran an unsteady hand through his hair; it had been a long week, and he was feeling his years increasingly as each hour passed.

It’s not, he thought, as if we haven’t lost friends before.

He knew that this was different; the Belanger’s were family, Kathy had become the sister he’d never had, and Cassie was almost a daughter. Hadn’t he watched her take her first steps across the faded linoleum of his kitchen? Hadn’t he been the one sitting where her father should have sat for a hundred soccer games and dance recitals? He sighed, feeling a cold churning in his belly at the thought of Kathy’s absence, the bone-weary sadness at the pain his wife was facing, losing her oldest and dearest friend.

Grace was being brave, of course, keeping strong for Cassie, but a husband, a good husband anyway, was the one on whose shoulder you cried after the lights were turned off and no one else could see.

Cassie.

Guy watched her accepting hugs, condolences, and murmured kindnesses that she would never remember. He watched her eyes, and saw her mind awhirl behind them, as though all of this were already a memory.

He knew she was planning something, but what? She was too smart to not be subtle, but he had watched this young woman grow up from an infant, almost as much in his own home as her mother’s. As a father himself, Guy recognized a whitewash when he saw one. Cassie had given up on her hitchhiking plans much too quickly for his liking. He knew the girl, and her sudden and unquestioning submission was out of character. The Cassie he knew would have fought, setting her jaw and refusing to budge. She could be a pit bull when it came to getting her own way, and when she suddenly became a poodle, something was wrong.

Cassie looked up and caught his eye, and Guy produced a weary smile as he came up to her, placing his hands on her shoulders.

“You hanging in there, Cass?” he asked, and Cassie nodded, smiling as best she could.

“You, um…” Guy continued, looking over the tops if his wire rimmed glasses and into her eyes, “You take care of yourself, Kiddo. Call us as soon as you get to Portland. I…I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

He looked in her eyes as his mind raced.

What are you thinking Cassie Belanger? Guy wondered to himself, what are you up to?

And more importantly, what can I do about it?

Guy smiled again and bent to kiss her forehead, then turned and walked away.

Grace Williams came and took her hand.

“How are you doing, Honey?” she asked.

“I’ll be okay,” Cassie answered, taking a deep breath.

“Are you sure you have to go so soon? Maybe you could just take a week or two, let things settle and then–”

“No,” Cassie interrupted, “the bus tickets are nonrefundable. Besides, I want to get there early and have a look around the campus on my own.”

Grace sighed. “Oh Cassie,” she said, “all the way to Oregon? You must be able to find a school closer to home? There has to be one college in Arizona with a writing department!”

Cassie smiled. “Portland State University is one of the best writing colleges in the country, and besides, they’ve already accepted my transcripts.”

“It’s just–”

“I know,” Cassie said, “I know, it’s so far, you keep telling me. I just feel like I have to get away. I need a new place, somewhere unexpected where I don’t recognize every rock and tree. I can’t write here, it’s too familiar, especially now…”

Cassie paused, and took another deep breath, fighting the tears that threatened to well and overflow. How could she tell Grace how she felt? How could she explain the way that her soul turned cold whenever she passed the street where her mother had died, hearing the screech of rubber and the crush of metal? How she pictured her lying there in the darkness, crying for help? How many times now had she woken up, trembling and gasping for air, with this vision seared into her nightmares?

“I know,” Grace whispered, “I know. Maybe you’re right, sometimes change is the only way to heal.”

Cassie squeezed her hand gratefully, unable to look in her eyes.

“Now,” Grace continued, “tell me the truth. You’ve given up this silly notion of hitchhiking and bought a bus ticket, right?”

Cassie hesitated, “Yes…” It was the truth, technically, she had, at one point given up on the idea, and she had bought a ticket…

Grace squared her shoulders and stepped back, all business. “Let me see it…”

As she dug through her pockets, Cassie grimaced.

“Thanks for the trust,” she muttered, “it’s a real vote of confidence.”

Pastor William’s wife smiled at that.

“Oh, I trust you dear, but I was young once myself, and I remember how hard it can be to let go of a good idea.”

Cassie found the blue and red striped Greyhound envelope and handed it to Grace, who opened it and quickly scanned the ticket inside.

“Gracious,” she exclaimed, “Two hundred and fifty-eight dollars! You should be able to fly there for that!”

“Not both ways.”

“Cassie!” Grace cried, “This bus leaves at three, that’s less than an hour away!”

“Don’t worry,” Cassie replied, “Frank is going to pick me up in the taxi, and he should be here any minute.”

As though on queue, a horn honked from the street as a faded yellow cab pulled up to the curb. Cassie reached into the backseat of the Williams’ station wagon and grabbed her faded duffel bag and jacket.

“Well,” Grace said, taking a deep breath, “if you’re determined to go, then give me a hug and walk away before I cry.”

Cassie felt tears well once more in her own eyes.

“Thank you so much,” she said, “for everything. Thank Guy too, for helping with the funeral, and with Mom’s stuff.”

Grace Williams dismissed this with a quick wave of her hand, “Oh, it’s just a few boxes. The Williams clan has lived on that farm for eighty years, I can’t imagine the attic will be going anywhere in the next two or three.”

Then she stepped forward and pulled the girl close, hugging her fiercely, as Cassie whispered into her ear.

“Please keep flowers on her grave, she likes–”

“Blue carnations, of course,” Grace answered, tears now flowing down her cheeks, “I love her almost as much as you do, remember? Now go on, your taxi is waiting…”

Cassie drew a deep, shuddering breath as she backed away toward the waiting cab. “I love you, Grace…” she said.

“I know,” her pastor’s wife replied, “make sure you call me as soon as you reach Portland…and go straight to the college…and stay on campus.”

The young woman laughed through her tears, “I will, I will…I’ll be fine.”

Then Cassie climbed into the passenger seat of the taxi and quickly closed the door. She kept her eyes forward as the car pulled away, heading towards the bus station, and bit her lip fiercely as the tears ran down her cheeks, clutching desperately at the folded scrap of paper in her pocket, her talisman.

She watched through the dusty windshield as they started though town.

As much as she yearned for escape from the constant, painful reminders of her mother’s death, for the excitement of college, and most of all for the possibility of confronting her father, Bowie was still the only home she had ever known. She etched the images before her into her memory as though it were the last time she would see them.

Passing the library, which sat like a squat brick pyramid, Frank turned onto Main Street. From there, Cassie could see the Yucca Lodge Motel, where she had worked the last three summers as a room attendant. Mrs. Miller, her supervisor, was eighty-six now and pretty much just loaded the supply cart each morning and spent the rest of the day sitting in one of the empty rooms watching her soap operas and smoking long, thin cigarettes.

Past the motel, Cassie could see the conical roof of another Bowie landmark, the teepee tavern. She rolled her eyes.

Shaped to resemble an Indian teepee, the tavern’s great beige cone rose above the landscape like a beacon for the thirsty folk of Bowie. Both signs, in four foot blazing neon, were currently fired up and blinking the word Beer on either side of the building.

A lone blue mailbox sat beside the Post Office, available for those who couldn’t stop by between the convenient hours of ten and two. Cassie pictured Mr. Tolstrom, Bowie’s postman, sitting in the sorting room, his establishment’s doors securely locked, casually reading the townsfolk’s magazines (and the occasional personal letter) before slipping them into the outgoing bins.

The cab wheezed to a rattling stop as a flashing bar came down across Main Street and the iron clang of bells rang painfully in their ears. Frank snorted in disgust and rolled up the windows to block out as much of the noise as possible. The small cab grew warm quickly as they waited for the Union Pacific to make its slow pass through town.

Once the bar lifted and the cab was underway again, they passed Welker-Scott Memorial Park, its swing-sets and chain-link backstop lonely and forlorn amid the swath of dry, russet grass, as dead in winter as it would be in July.

Cassie smiled, and in her minds-eye she saw herself and her various school chums through the years, swinging gleefully on the rusty swings, braids flying, their scab-covered knees bared to the world. Years would pass and find them clustered together along the fence, whispering and giggling, pointing proprietary fingers at the boys who played baseball, spit in the dirt, and strove mightily to pretend that they were blissfully unaware of their female admirers.

A few years further and they would sit on the brief spring grasses in small groups of twos and fours, holding hands with those same boys, heads bent in impassioned whispers. She smiled again; wondering how many times this cycle had repeated itself, while the park remained unchanged.

Cassie wiped fresh tears from her burning cheeks as her only world slipped slowly past her and was gone.

***

© 2006 Perry P. Perkins. All Rights Reserved.

The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal.

*** Thank you for reading chapter one of Just Past Oysterville, I hope you enjoyed it! – Perry

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