Seagulls encircled a lithe figure standing in the receding tide, the air a thick mishmash of salted spray and early morning promise. A swath of dark hair obscured her face until the wind danced. The glimpse caught in my throat. I stretched my arms across my porch bench, bracing against the unexpected pull. My journal collapsed in my lap; my place lost. A freighter blasted a warning. Her stride took her away from me, her Aves guard trailing in Pied-Piper fashion. She melted into the mist.
The town, strung along a spit of the Washington coast, is not large enough to hide anyone in the off season. By noon, I knew that a woman fitting her description had rented the bluff house for the month. I told myself I wasn’t altering my routine for her, but I delayed my morning walk until she came into view.
With my elderly neighbor’s mutt as a beard, I merged onto the beach with unfelt, confident strides and tossed Hardy’s rubber stick in her direction. Hardy rushed the lure, snatched it up and trotted over to get a sniff of her. Jealousy spiked my spine.
“Hardy!” I called. I neared, keeping a social distance. “Come on, boy.”
She bent over, her hair cascading, and rubbed Hardy behind the ears.
I forced my breath into an even rhythm. Hardy pivoted and dropped the toy stick at my feet. I tossed it another forty.
She took in Hardy’s one-man race, making no attempt to tame the hair blowing across her face. “He’s a breed jumble. A rescue?”
“Funny, I never asked.” Despite my wishing for it, she did not turn her head toward me, her profile defined by the midday sun. The catch in my throat returned.
I tracked Hardy to steady myself. “I walk him for my neighbor.” Hardy nudged a piece of driftwood until it rolled and began pawing the sand. “Probably a clam.” I offered. “He’s a digger.”
“A writer with writer’s block. A walk with Hardy clears the cobwebs.”
She turned her back to me, surveying the scene. A few surfers dotted down the shoreline. A sailboat cruised at a hundred yards out. “Good spot for it.”
I studied the cut of her shoulders under her sweatshirt, her stance, subtly defiant, a heroine. I had disappeared for so long into my stories that any human interaction had become a conduit to conjure future characters. I quashed an absurd notion to ask her to be my muse but could not ignore the inner roil.
“What brings you here?”
She shrugged. “A long, postponed promise to myself.”
I waited, hoping for more, but Hardy reappeared and deposited his lure at her feet.
She kneaded his neck, said, “I have to get off.”
She cut past me before I could object. I forced myself to trod on, rendering the walk with Hardy a reality rather than a ploy. I watched for her the next day, and the next, but the only sign of her was the light in the western window of the bluff house. My writing came to a complete standstill before bursting into an obsessive diatribe that I buried in the bottom of the trash can just before collection day.
Desperate for an outlet, I drove into Aberdeen, swam laps at the YMCA and stopped at the local market. I cruised the aisles, gathering sudden urges into my basket. At the self-checkout, two machines to my left, there she was, head down, intent on her task. Shoppers between us blocked a direct view. I scanned my items, trying to think of a clever quip to catch her attention. The machine prompted me to weigh the tomatoes. She stepped off to the exit.
I tapped my foot at the maddening slowness of the payment process, pocketed my receipt and rushed the door with bags in both hands. A search of the parking lot came up empty. I threw myself into my car and admonished myself for the unwarranted panic.
The crush of incoming weekenders clogged the to-ocean-beaches grid of streets. At the first open stretch of the single-lane highway, the two cars ahead of me surged forward, passing a slower one in front. Relegated to my place by another run of double yellow lines, I fumed.
At the next straight away, I pressed the accelerator well past the posted speed, passing just as the driver of the slower car removed their baseball cap and I caught her quick smile. I swerved back into the right lane, reveling like a teenager in the happy notion she had recognized me. I navigated the curves north, daring sneak-peeks in my rearview when forest shadows might cover my glance.
She kept her distance. No denying the puppeteer nature of her presence, as if I had played into her gambit by passing. I yielded at the town crossroads, my wheels inching forward, loathe to lose her to the bluff turn-off, but she followed me through the intersection. I steered into my cottage driveway. She parked across the street and without a glance my way, headed inside the local pub.
The wind pushed out of me, disappointment bubbling in my throat. I ferried my groceries into the kitchen, grabbed a jacket and tramped back out. A squall whipped whitecaps on the blue, the vortex distorting the sunrays. I stomped down the stairs to the beach, berating myself for assuming. A perfect shell revealed itself in my path. I plucked it out of the foam and brushed the grit from between its ridges.
“Lovely.” Her voice crossed my shoulder with the breeze, cool and not.
“Findable only in the off-season when the summer scavengers aren’t at work.” I turned.
She stood six feet away and held up a tote bag from the pub, her baseball cap back in place, large black sunglasses shielding her eyes. “Care to join me?”
Without waiting for an answer, she took a seat on a large log, motioned me to her right and unearthed two bottles of beer and a large chicken burger sliced in half. We twisted off our beer caps.
She nodded at the burger. “Want half?”
The ease of the share struck a note I couldn’t quite grasp. “Did you know that Marla raises the chickens herself?”
“The pub owner?”
I nodded. “It’s an under-the-foodies-radar farm-to-table.”
“Any other local secrets I should know?”
“Sally Sturmer does an informal whiskey tasting—really good stuff—on her front porch on the second Friday of the month. Ten bucks in the mason jar for five shots. Bring your own lawn chair.”
“Sounds like a locals-only situation.”
“Sally’s flexible this time of year.”
We chewed in silence. Seagulls padded toward us, perusing our potential leavings. She cast a crust of bread at one.
I wagged my head. “Wouldn’t start something you can’t finish.”
“Finishing is overrated.”
I laughed. “I wish my editor had your mindset.”
She consumed her last bite, denying the hopeful gulls. “Aren’t most endings really a beginning?”
She stood up. “I best get my groceries into the fridge.” She said it like I would know she had groceries.
With considerable effort, I summoned a nonchalant tone. “Shall I bring two chairs on Friday?”
“Five-ish. Beach Avenue just off Third.”
The gulls took flight as she climbed the stairs to town level.
* * *
My journal had more lines crossed out than not. The pages begged for mercy. I pushed it aside and stared at the clock as if the answer lay between the minute and hour hands. After a shower and more attention to my hair than usual, I toted two folding chairs up the hill. I moved through the growing crowd, shaking the hands of folks I knew were vaccinated, keeping my distance from others.
I dunked my cash into the jar and studied the bottles of fine whiskey set on the small table. The 16-year Aberlour drew my eye.
Freda, the owner of the local mercantile, sidled up. “Who’s the second chair for?”
Nothing goes unnoticed here, like a townie having lunch on the beach with an outsider, but I answered anyway. “I invited the gal renting the bluff house.”
Freda raised her hand to shade the sun from her eyes as she looked into mine. “Know much about her?” Her tone suggested a judgement in play among the town gossips.
“Not really. Just thought she might enjoy a gathering in the midst of a solo getaway.”
“Marla says she’s from the Mendocino area.”
“I wouldn’t have pegged her for a Californian.”
“Well, you know what they say about north versus south.”
I did. Sweet Cali summers, spiked with pubescent angst and heady experimentation, flavored by salt and sea, had shaped me. I had spent almost every one, prior to my 13th birthday, with family on my mother’s side, the Bay area residents East-coast-like in their work zeal. The Los Angeles-born defined the word relax. Throughout the ’80s, we occupied a series of cottages along the shoreline just north of San Luis Obispo, each June to August.
Dinner had rotated between the households, satiated-for-now teens spilling out onto the beach after, pick up volleyball and football driving each evening to an end. My mother used to joke about how the Wilkes, in “Gone with the Wind,” had always married their cousins. How we were the perfect set of boys versus girls, no others need apply.
A cloud moved across the sun, threatening, but the wind carried it off again. I sipped on my single malt and visited with a few more folks, trying not to look over my shoulder every thirty seconds. The crowd settled into their seats and Burt, Freda’s oldest son, picked at his guitar, strumming a Muddy Waters tune.
Restless, I returned to the porch to procure a second shot. I put a hand to the Aberfeldy, reading the small easel note next to it: “Flavor-rich, syrupy notes of honey matched with bursts of vanilla and a gentle spice undercurrent.”
“The GlenDronach is a better choice.” She stepped up on my left. A bandana wrapped her hair back, but sunglasses hid the eyes I wanted to see.
A smile crawled across my face. “Such preferences define my latest characters and quite possibly hold the key to solving the crime.” I drew my sunglasses down on my nose in my best detective impression, studying her profile. “So, you prefer caramel to vanilla?”
Her chin lowered as she read the labels. “I prefer most everything to vanilla.”
“If you’re in need of some spice, wait a beat. You won’t be disappointed.” I cast an eye at the crowd and logged several folks looking our way.
She picked up a bottle and held it to the light. “Secrets revealed?”
“Fodder for a thousand unwritten scenes, dysfunction, all round.”