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Shoalwater Voices: Chapter One

October 28, 2007

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Shoalwater Voices: Shoalwater Book Two

by PERRY P. PERKINS

For God may speak in one way, or in another,
Yet man does not perceive it.
In a dream, in a vision of the night,
When deep sleep falls upon men,
While slumbering on their beds.
Then He opens the ears of men,
And seals their instruction.

Job 33:14-16

Prologue

 

“Into the longboats!”

 

The First Mate bellowed into the night, his voice scattering like a whisper in the storm.  Blood poured from his shoulder and down the arm that hung numb and lifeless at his side.

All around him was shrieking darkness, freezing sleet and the terrifying kindling-snap of heavy timbers.

 

“Into the boats, if you’d see daylight again!”

 

A figure crashed against him in the blackness, nearly pitching him over the slanting deck-rail to certain death in the churning surf below.  He grabbed at the man and flung him into the last longboat, trying to clear his own eyes of the pouring rain and hail.

 

He choked, gagging on the smoke from the smoldering timbers. 

 

Fear coated the First Mate’s throat like coppery acid; his stomach and head swam as his life poured from him and across the surf-swept deck. 

 

Barely a quarter hour had passed since The Betty Jean had splintered her hull, and she was breaking up quickly beneath the pounding surf.

 

Blinded by the frigid salt spray and the darkness of the winter storm, he screamed to be heard over the bellowing sea and thunder. 

 

“We must get the boats away,” he cried, “or she’ll suck us down with her!”

 

The Captain was dead, and of the forty-nine souls that had been on board, he herded only five deckhands, eight women, and three children into the swaying longboat.  The crewmen were grim and silent as they scrambled to unlash the oars; the women wept silently, clutching shivering, shrieking children to their breasts.

 

Somewhere to the east was the dark, fog-shrouded coast of Washington, but no stars shone in the blinding squall to steer by.

 

As the narrow vessel dropped into the surf, the men frantically shipped oars and began rowing, cursing as the icy brine washed over them; and each fateful stroke bore them further into the raging sea and away from shore.

 

The Betty Jean was doomed. 

 

And as the ship keeled and the cold veil of the Pacific swept over her deck at last, no one was left aboard to hear the muffled screams rising up through the sodden timbers.  The weak, hopeless drumming of fists faded slowly as the ship descended through the black, soundless depths.

 

By the time she came to rest on the ocean floor, all was silent.

 

Chapter One

 

The girl sang.

 

Cho-pe…Cho-pe…

                        Grandmother…Grandmother…

Tshis…tshis…E-la-han, Cho-pe…

                        Cold…cold…Help me, Grandmother…

Kil-a-ko-tah…

 

Cassie Belanger woke in the darkness with a deep, shuddering gasp, rising through the foggy layers of her dream like a deepwater diver.  She broke the surface into reality fighting for air, sheened in sweat as she struggled to place herself.

 

She was in the water, cold water…

 

No, she was in her own bed, in her own room.  Her mind struggled to piece together the fragments of her dream.  A ship, a storm, freezing water, and screams.  But as quickly as the real world asserted itself, the dream faded from her mind like wisps of fog before the sun, until nothing remained except…

 

“Kil-a-ko-tah,” she whispered. 

 

The word meant nothing to her, a vague collection of syllables, sung in a dialect that was already slipping away.  It meant nothing now…but it had.  Cassie was sure the word had meant something in her dream.

 

Kil-a-ko-tah…

 

Something brushed her bare leg and Cassie screamed, leaping from the bed as Spartacus gave a protesting yowl and bounded, in a yellow flash, off the bed and out of the room, his tail twitching in feline indignity.

 

Cassie sighed, brushing her long dark hair from a sweaty forehead and squinting at the tiny clock radio on the crate that served as her bedside table.

 

5:45

 

She flipped on the bedside lamp, washing the room with soft yellow light.  

 

With a groan, she probed beneath the bed with her bare toes until she found her slippers.

 

*

Cassie picked at her breakfast, allowing her cornflakes to congeal into an unappetizing gray lump as she struggled through her morning devotions.  She read the same Bible verses repeatedly without seeing them, and left for class feeling sleepy and dissatisfied.

 

An hour later, she was convinced she was losing her mind.

 

*

 

No one passing would have given the battered old RV a second glance.  Dusty white with a faded tan strip down each side, the boxy vehicle fit in perfectly with the long rows of shabby trailers and motor homes that filled the low-rent mobile park, sagging on their cracked, weed-choked concrete pads, exuding an air of poverty and despair. 

 

Inside, however, was a techno-geek’s dreamland.  Banks of computer, video, and sound equipment filled every available space.

 

Cheap pressboard cupboards had been removed, as had the stove and one of the overhead bunks, replaced with state-of-the-art workstations within the thirty-two feet of the old Pace Arrow.  The rear of the vehicle, which had originally housed a queen-size bed, was now a tiny office complete with wireless-internet and satellite connection to the outside world. 

 

A large flat screen monitor covered the wall and a smaller notebook computer rested on the desktop beneath it.

 

And as all the various lights, buttons, screens, and speakers flashed, beeped, and buzzed around him, the RV’s sole occupant was slowly drinking himself into oblivion.

 

*

 

No one tells you what you should do when your wife dies at twenty-four.  No one comes alongside you, puts their hand on your shoulder, and tells you that they know how you feel. 

 

On December 19, 1999, Bryan Lee Heckard, Heck to his friends, married Rebecca Anne Bridges, his high school sweetheart. 

 

On June 20th, 2000, he dropped his wife off at the door of Legacy Immanuel Hospital in Salem, Oregon for her annual checkup.  Six months later Rebecca Heckard was dead. 

 

At twenty-five, Heck Heckard was a widower, with no one to tell him what he should do next.

 

Cool, bluish light flowed over the faded oak desktop and sparkled off the smooth round bottle, illuminating the two inches of amber liquid remaining inside.  Heck picked it up and squinted at the label.  He’d had just enough to drink that the sharp edges of the lettering had begun to grow fuzzy.

 

“The grand old drink of the South…” he murmured, running a thumb across the woodprint of a majestic Southern plantation.

 

Heck upended the bottle, the last of the whiskey gurgling into his coffee cup.  He briefly considered getting another ice cube, but decided it was too much trouble to get up from his desk and cross to the RV’s refrigerator.

 

He raised the glass in mock salute to the flickering images on the small television across the room.  An animated weather girl was pointing at some blue squiggles off the coast that seemed to be in imminent danger of running into a bunch of red arrows coming out of the mountains. 

 

 It looked like a storm was brewing but Heck couldn’t be sure, as he had muted the volume an hour ago.  He supposed he should either get up and close the ceiling vent or listen to the report.

 

As he reached for the remote, his elbow bumped a stack of books resting on the edge of the desk, and the top two hit the carpet with a dull flop.  He reached for them, grunting.  The first was a leather-bound edition of the Holy Bible, New King James, a wedding gift from Rebecca.  Flipping through the pages, Heck noticed the cover held a thick layer of dust. 

 

The second book was The Official Patient’s Sourcebook on Endometrial Cancer; this volume he didn’t open.  He knew what lay between the worn, creased pages of the thick soft back.  Nearly every page would be covered in various shades of highlighter ink, the margins filled with hastily scribbled notes.

 

Symptoms they’d recognized, questions for the doctors, things to do next.  Heck held the book in his lap for a long moment.

 

Were his mind clearer, Heck could have quoted most of the pages from memory, but why bother?  Nothing between the dog-eared, coffee-stained covers had been able to stop the beast that had devoured his wife. 

 

Nothing in it could tell him what to do now.

 

“Six months,” he said to the walls, to the chipper weather girl mouthing the news on the silent TV screen.

 

Six months was an eye blink.  Two oil changes; the span between haircuts.  One morning you’re opening gifts under the tree, the next you’re slathering on sun block at the beach.  It was nothing.

 

Six months was an eternity.

 

The uncomfortable sympathy of coworkers; the meaningless platitudes of pastors who have no place to fall back to but their windowless bunkers of faith and mumblings about God’s will. 

Insurance papers, chemotherapy, weight loss, hair loss; six months could grind away like an endless nightmare, a dark and twisted carnival ride in hell. 

 

We’re sorry, but you’ll have to quit school…
We’re sorry, but you’ll never have children…
We’re sorry, but there’s nothing more we can do…

 

And every minute, every second, you heard the countdown in your head. That tick-tick-ticking of the grim reaper’s pocket-watch bringing you closer and closer to that morning when you found yourself standing over an open grave, nostrils filled with the scents of fresh turned loam and your dry-cleaned suit, fingering a gold band that had suddenly lost all meaning.

 

Heck grimaced as the lukewarm whiskey hit the back of his throat.  Fumes, like caramel ether, roared through his sinuses and his eyes watered as the alcohol added to the fire in his belly.  Setting the empty bottle aside with a solid thump, Heck wished briefly that he’d picked up a second, and then just as quickly dismissed the thought. 

 

He didn’t mind the occasional drowning of his sorrows—

 

Becca’s voice whispered into his ear that, at once or twice a week, the trend was becoming…well, a trend–however, one bottle a week was enough; he had no interest in becoming a full-blown alcoholic. 

 

All that Heck had left in life was his business, and he knew the quickest way to bury that as well was by allowing himself to crawl into a bottle.  His blurry gaze fell to a small plaque resting just to the left of his monitor.  The words, penned in narrow calligraphy against a sunset-at-the-beach motif, were ones that he had long since memorized.

 

I walked a mile with Pleasure; She chatted all the way,
But left me none the wiser, for all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow, and ne’er a word said she.
But oh, the many things I learned, when Sorrow walked with me.

 

The plaque had been a gift from their pastor.  A simple prayer the man had found in a Christian bookstore somewhere, reminding him of the lengthy, brutal path that two of his young parishioners had found themselves on. 

 

Becca had loved it, placing it on the bedside table in their small apartment and quoting it often. 

 

That, Heck supposed, was why he had kept it, when so many other items, so much personal flotsam of their brief life together had been boxed up and placed in storage, or shipped off to the local Goodwill.  He found no particular comfort in the rhyme, and didn’t pretend to have any appreciation of poetry in general, or the four-line greeting card variety in particular, but…

 

Becca had loved it.

 

Without realizing what he was about to do, Heck found himself lurching suddenly from his chair and snatching the plaque from the desk.  He stood, swaying slightly, and stared at the words for a time before opening a drawer of his small filing cabinet and dropping the poem, face down, into it.

 

Whoever wrote that, Heck thought as he slumped back into his chair, hadn’t walked far enough with sorrow.

 

Given enough time, and enough silence, sorrow could find plenty to say.

 

The days and weeks following the funeral had stretched on interminably, an endless succession of nonevents.

 

Gray time. 

 

He had almost given up on everything.  Walked away from his friends, his fledgling computer company, and just quit. 

 

But he couldn’t. 

 

What would he be without Rebecca and his work? 

 

Cancer had eaten away his title of husband and now his admittedly tenuous grasp on a sense of personal value lay in the amorphous belief that he and his work were essential to…someone.  Otherwise, what was he?  What reason was there for him?

 

Maybe you just need a vacation, Becca whispered.

 

“Yeah,” Heck mumbled to the empty room, “just pack up and head out.”

 

The more he thought about it, the better he liked the idea; here at last was a chance to get some time away from all the sympathy and the concerned looks.  Shoot, he had the mobile hardware all around him, he could pretty well design websites anywhere he could park the RV.  It was the first thought that had brightened Heck’s world in many weeks.

 

Yes, he thought, that’s exactly what I need.  Some time away, somewhere where he didn’t see Rebecca in every bookshop and restaurant window.

 

Heck pulled the computer keyboard closer and, opening his e-mail account, started to type.  He’d head out in the morning, fill the gas tank, and just follow the road.  He was, after all, the boss.

 

Shoalwater…

 

He shook his head as the word whispered through his mind.  Something like a cool breath touched the back of his neck, raising fine, blond hairs.

 

So anyway…he’d let his current clients know that he would be out of the “office” for a while but that they could still contact him.  With no deadlines falling in the next six weeks, and no new designs pending, no one should feel slighted.

 

Shoalwater…Pil Chickamin…

 

Heck frowned, focusing his blurred vision on the screen, knowing that his thick, clumsy fingers were leaving an extensive string of typos.  Well, that’s what spellchecker was for, right?

 

Shoalwater; he couldn’t get it out of his mind.  The last several mornings he’d woken, drunk or sober, in a cold sweat, pain ripping through his shoulder and that word on his lips.  Something in the dream, something about water and blood, misty images that slipped away just past the shadowy edge of his memory.

 

He’d lie back, breathing heavily, massaging his aching shoulder and then, like the lapping murmur of waves on a beach…

 

Shoalwater…
            Shoalwater…
                       Shoalwater…

 

Finally, late one restless night, he’d done a web search on the word, and found links to restaurants, shops, even a casino, all bordering Washington’s Willapa Bay and Long Beach. 

 

Heck frowned again, glancing at a sheaf of printouts that rested beside the computer, the top page stained with the wheat-colored ring of the whiskey bottle.

 

Beneath the circle of liquor was a street map of the peninsula, the white spaces and borders of the page filled with his own neat, narrow handwriting.  Most of it was gibberish, misspelled or meaningless phrases.  The word Betty appeared several times, as did Shoalwater…the print was unmistakably his own, though tiny and smudged, and…and well…

 

…he couldn’t remember writing a word of it.

 

What did it mean? 

 

He’d never heard of Shoalwater, and he’d never been to Long Beach in his life.  What was his subconscious trying to dredge up?

 

Heck felt his eyelids drooping as he finished composing the e-mail.  Maybe in the morning, after he filled the tank and hit the open road, he’d point the RV’s grimy headlights towards the coast and head north. 

 

Whatever it was that was rolling around in his head and messing with his dreams, he wanted rid of it, and if that meant a trip to some backwater tourist town, so be it.

 

He’d just…

 

Heck was snoring before his mind finished the thought, the keyboard tattooing small squares into the side of his face as he slept.

 

For the next eight hours, the characters on the TV screen would continue their mime; his computer would flash the Send? twenty-eight hundred times, and Bryan Heckard would dream of wind and water and blood.

 

© 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 Shoalwater Voices, I hope you enjoyed it!

– Perry

 

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