Kerry Profitts diary, August 11.
Once again, I woke up screaming. Drenched in sweat, wet sheets tangled around my legs as if Id been flailing for hours. Brandy even came into our room and said she could tell the instant I snapped out of it. My mouth was open like a gasping fish, she said, and then it closed and my eyes opened and I let out a real ear-piercer, because after all there was this face in front of me, looking at me like I was some kind of sideshow freak.
Which, you know, if the shoe fits.
When my heart stopped trying to tear through my ribcage and I could breathe again, she asked me what Id been dreaming about. Hell if I know, I told her. I can never remember, when I wake up, anything more than an overpowering sense of dread. Doom on wheels.
Maybe its the weird hours Ive been keeping. I worked till eleven last night, same the night before that, but had the breakfast-and-lunch shift for three days before that. Today its late shift again, so I slept in, probably longer than I should have. My head is throbbing so hard I can barely see the screen, and who knows if Ill be able to read this later?
But thats why Einstein invented ibuprofen, right? And spellcheck. And Scotts brewing fresh coffee. Nectar of the gods.
She couldnt see the ocean from where she stood, on a grease-caked cement step just outside the kitchens back door. A row of bungalowsidentical dark boxes, some with glowing windowsblocked her view. She could hear it, though: the steady, dull thunder of the surf reminding her that it was close, at the edge of both the Seaside Resort and the continent. And she could smell it, a sharp tang that battled for supremacy with the smells of steak, seafood and smoke that blew out from the kitchen. Towering above the bungalows, underlit by the resorts floodlights, incredibly tall palms swayed on their skinny trunks in the evening breeze, looking like skyrocket bursts frozen in time at the ends of their own contrails. A sliver of crescent moon dangled above them, high and distant.
Kerry Profitt was a daughter of the great plains, born and raised near the confluence of two great rivers in Cairo, Illinois. But the Mississippi and Ohio, powerful as they were, had nothing on the Pacific Ocean. The ocean was magical to her, its depths and mysteries were boundless, its call irresistible. She had made a point, since hitting La Jolla for her summer job, of keeping it in sight whenever possible. Bad for the skin, all that sun and salt airand she, with her complexion like fresh snow ("whitest white girl Ive ever seen" was what Brandy said), knew better. But she couldnt deny its magnetic pull.
Lost in thought, she didnt see the shadowed figure slip into the alley, didnt know she wasnt alone until the voice startled her. "Hey, Kerr, where is it the swallows go back to?"
Startled, she managed to keep her cool, and she smiled when the recognized the voice. She knew it belonged to Josh Quinn, one of her housemates, but it took her a moment to refocus her gaze and pick him out in the dark alley. His skin was every bit as pale as hers, but by choice, not genetics, and the black of his hair, unlike hers, came from a bottle. He looked as out of place in the valets uniformwhite shirt, maroon vest, black pantsas a lion on a kindergarten playground.
Capistrano, I think." Kerry replied after a moments consideration. She was used to this kind of thing from Josh, king of the non-sequitur. If his middle name isnt Random, it should be.
"Yeah, thats right," he agreed.
Since it didnt seem like he was going to take it any farther, she decided to press the point. "Why?"
He struck a match in the darkness and raised it in cupped hands to a cigarette held between his lips. "These tourists, man," he said around the butt. Then, blowing out a plume of smokeaway from Kerry, because she would have killed him if he hadnthe continued with an exasperated tone. "Theyre like those swallows."
"The ones in Capistrano?"
"In what way?" You had to ask, she chastised herself, bracing for the answer.
"Some of them seem to come here every summer, like clockwork."
She had noticed the same thing, though without the extended bird metaphor. "Good for business I guess," she pointed out.
"I guess. But this one guyyou know the kind, enormous gut, Texas accent, gold watch that cost more than everything Ive owned in my life put togetheryelled at me just now because I didnt turn on the heat in his Mercedes."
"The heat?" Kerry asked with surprise. It was a fairly cool nightthey all were here, close to the water. Balmy eves, she had learned, were not so much a southern California thing. Once the sun went down the days heat fled fast. But even so, far from wintry cold.
"Thats what I said. Only it was more like, dude, are you freaking crazy? Its August! And he was like, I told you last year, if its after dark I like the heat on when you bring the car around. It takes time to warm up."
"But you didnt work here last year," Kerry pointed out.
Josh jabbed the glowing end of his cigarette at her to emphasize his point. "Exactly," he said. "But you think reality matters to this guy? Like Im the first Goth valet in California history, or something, so it couldnt have been someone else he told last year. Hes so convinced it was me, he stiffed me on the tip."
Kerry pushed aside the hand that still held the cigarette. She had made clear, plenty of times, what she thought of that habit, and couldnt understand how he managed to reconcile it with his vegan lifestyle. "Hey," he had said when shed raised the question once, "who said life was free of contradiction? Anyway, its a vegetable. If tobacco had a face, I wouldnt smoke it." Sympathetically, in spite of the noxious weed, she rubbed Joshs bony shoulder. "There are always a few pains," she said. "But most of the guests are pretty nice."
"Maybe to you," Josh countered. "You can spit in their food. All I can do is adjust their seat backs wrong, and the potential threat level just isnt the same."
Kerry laughed then and punched the shoulder she had just been rubbing. "Ill tell you what," she offered. "Ill trade places with you for a day. You deal with complaints about food being too hot or too cold or too spicy or too bland, and guys grabbing your ass and winking at you like Im going to go, oh, youre just so handsome Ill put this tray of food down and meet you in the alley."
"I guess it depends on the guy," Josh suggested with a smile she could see in the glow of his cigarette embers. "Hey, my principles are nothing if not situational. And believe me, Im not under any illusions that you have an easy job either."
"Summer jobs arent supposed to be easy," Kerry replied, ignoring his jokes. "Theyre supposed to be brutal and demeaning and ill-paying. Toughens you up for the rest of your life."
Josh nodded. "I guess youre right." He flipped his smoke to the sidewalk and crushed it out with his shoe. "So, you ready to jet? Waiting on Mace?"
"Waiting on Mace," Kerry confirmed. It had become a house motto over the summer. Mace Winston was never ready for anything on timehe was the only person she had ever known who was perpetually late leaving work. She was more than ready to goher headache from that morning had never really gone away, and the noise in the crowded dining room had just made it worse.
But before Josh could reply, Mace came through the kitchen door. He was a dishwasher and the hairs on his muscular forearms were plastered to his skin by the water that had leaked into his rubber gloves. Even the sleeves of his T-shirt were wet. His broad, handsome face was flushed from the hot water hed been working in, with a line of sweat sitting on his upper lip.
He tossed Kerry a lopsided grin, as if something hurt in a place too embarrassing to mention. "You got to start encouraging those folks to eat less," he told her. "Fewer side dishes. Better for their hearts, and better for me."
"Ill see what I can do," she said with a laugh. Neither of these guys were people shed have been likely to hang out with under other circumstances, but over the course of the summer theyd become close friends, and talking with them, she felt an easy, pleasant sense of comfort envelop her like a warm blanket on a cold night. It almostbut not quiteoverwhelmed the sense of impending disaster her dreams had left her with, and the headache that accompanied them. "Now can we go home?"
The others offered consentas if either of them would be likely to argue in favor of staying and working a while longer. Kerry took one last glimpse toward the water she couldnt see, breathed in a final lungful of ocean air, and they headed for the parking lot.
The Seaside Resort at La Jolla, to use its full name, was as soulless and impersonal as most large corporations. But it was also a corporation that recognized the fact that its business was largely seasonal, and to help it through the busy summer season it hired a lot of temporary workers. Summer help came from all over the worldKerry had met co-workers from Prague, Sydney, Heidelberg, Minsk and even the exotic climes of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. So the resort offered, as one of its worker-friendly perks, a roommate matching service. Kerry had signed up andafter filling out the requisite forms and answering a slew of questions about things she wouldnt even have talked about with the aunt and uncle whose home she lived inwas slotted into a house with five people with whom she had in common only the fact that they all worked for Seaside.
After a few weeks of initial discomfort, though, everyone fell into a kind of casual routine. Kerry, Josh, and Mace shared the house with Scott Banner and Brandy Pearson, who had come out from Harvard as a couple, and Rebecca Levine. The couple didnt get to share a room, since there were only two bedrooms in the small cottage, and nobody was willing to cram four into one room so two could have the other. But they still managed plenty of alone time in the house, and theyd both had tonight off. They had said they were going to a movie, and as Mace pulled his massive baby blue Lincoln Continental into the narrow drive, Kerry noticed that Scotts RAV4 was still gone.
"Guess the lovebirds are still out on the town," Josh pointed out, echoing Kerrys observation.
"Too bad for them," Mace said, without a hint of sympathy. The driveway ran alongside the house, crowded on one side by the neighboring houses oleander bushes, and on the other by the cottage itself. There was room for both cars if the RAV4 got tucked in first, but when Maces monstrosity had pulled in as far as it could, Scotts rear end wouldnt clear the sidewalk. Which meant he parked on the street. Mace had urged him just to block the sidewalk a little, but Scott was full of Harvard-induced social activism and refused to, in case someone came by in a wheelchair. Kerry admired the stand he took, but couldnt have said for sure if she would be as noble if itd been her looking for street parking late at night.
The cottage was dark, as if Brandy and Scott had left during bright daylight and forgotten that no one would be home until after eleven. Rebecca had been working early shifts, and was no doubt already sound asleepthe girl could sleep anywhere, through anything, Kerry had decided.
The nearest streetlight was half a block away, largely obstructed by a big willow that overhung most of the miniscule front yard. A low hedge ringed the front of the house, bisected by a flagstone walkway that led from the sidewalk to the front steps. Their landlord paid for landscapingif itd been left up to the six of them, Kerry was sure, everything would have died by July.
"Somebody couldve left a light on," Josh complained, fumbling in his pocket for keys. "I cant even see the front door."
"Like theyre gonna think of that," Mace replied quickly. "Probably too heavy into liplock mode when they walked out. And Sleeping Beauty was most likely out before the sun went down."
Having no flashlight handy, Kerry, who was not yet out of the Lincoln, hung back to hold the door open in case its dome light could cast a little illumination to help Josh. With considerable and fluent cursing, Josh managed to jam his key into the lock and get the door open. Inside, he flipped switches, and light blasted out from the coach lamp by the door, the windows and the gaping doorway.
Light that etched, among other things, a pair of legs sticking out of the hedge. Male legs, looked like, clad in dark pants, feet in what Kerry guessed were expensive leather ankle-high boots. She noticed herself noticing this, and realized that a far more appropriate response would have been to scream.
But the scream, practiced so often recently in dreams, wouldnt come. It caught in her throat like a chicken bone. Instead, she barely rasped out Maces name, since his back was still visible in the doorway.
He turned, gave her a questioning look.
"Mace," she said again, a little more forcefully.
"Whats up, Kerry?"
She pointed toward the hedge. Taking a step closer, she could see that the man, whoever he was, had crashed through the brush and was laying mostly covered by it. "Umm
he doesnt belong there."
Finally, Mace noticed him. "Oh, Jesus, Kerry. Get inside, Ill call the cops."
"I dont know if he needs cops," Kerry said, inching closer. "An ambulance, maybe."
"Hes just some drunk, Kerry," Mace argued. "Fell down there and cant wake up."
But Kerry didnt think so. Shed been around enough drunksheld the hair away from friends faces when they got sick, dodged clumsily groping hands at parties, even tucked her own Uncle Marsh into bed a time or two or tento know the stink that wafted around them like a foul cloud. The closer she got to this man, though, the more she knew the smell was all wrong. Instead of the miasma of alcohol there was a familiar metallic tang. The man in the hedge was very still and silent, and she moved closer still, as Mace watched, frozen, from the doorway.
The smell was blood, and it was thick in the air around the man.
Crap, she thought. Hes been stabbed. Or shot.
No way he hurt himself that much falling through the hedge, she knew. Hed have been scratched upcould even have put out an eye, she supposed, on a branchbut he wouldnt have opened enough veins to kick up a stench like a blood bank on two-for-one day. Kerry had nursemaided her mom for years while cancer had spread throughout her body, finally taking the older woman. Kerry was no trained doctor but shed learned a little something about emergency medical care during the ordeal, and she had a feeling that this guy was going to need everything she could offer, and then some.
Another smell, underlying the smell of the blood, nagged at her, and Kerry suddenly realized that it was a faint electrical stink of ozone, as if lightning had struck close by.
"I dont think he needs the police," she urged Mace again, leaning forward to find the mans wrist, in hopes of checking his pulse. By now, she noticed, Joshs lean form had appeared in the doorway, silhouetted behind Mace. "At least not first thing. He needs a paramedic."
The hand she had been groping for clamped around her forearm with surprising strength. "No," the man in the hedge said, his voice an anxious rasp almost indistinguishable from the rustle his motion made in the hedge. "No doctors."
Her heart jumped to her throat and she impulsively tried to yank her arm free. But the man held it fast, even raising his head a little to look at her. A stray beam from the streetlight shone through the leaves onto his right eye, making it gleam like something from a Poe story. "Promise me, no doctors," he insisted. "Take me in and give me shelter or leave me here, but let me live or die on my own terms."
Mace and Josh had both come down from the doorway and hovered over Kerry and the wounded man like anxious seagulls at the beach, looking for handouts. "Dude, let her go," Mace snarled. "Or Ill really put a hurtin on you."
She heard Mace shift as if he really did intend to attack the wounded man, and then she did something that surprised even her. She spread her armthe free one, as the man on the ground continued to clutch her right arm with a grip so powerful she didnt think she could have shaken itover the man, as if to protect him from whatever Mace might have in mind. "No!" she shouted. "Hes hurt bad enough. Leave him alone or help me bring him inside, but dont be stupid."
"I got to wonder about your definition of stupid," Mace said, sounding petulant.
"Hes right, Kerr," Josh added. "You want to bring some bloody stranger into our house?"
"You guys both missed Sunday school the day they talked about the Good Samaritan?" Kerry shot back over her shoulder. "If you dont want to help me, just get out of the way. Hes losing blood and he cant stay out here overnight." She pushed her way deeper into the thick hedge, feeling the branches scratch and tear at her skin like a hundred cat claws, snagging her long, fine black hair and the fabric of the white cotton dress shirt that, with snug black pants, was her restaurant uniform, and she reached around the strangers head with her left hand, hoping she could ease him up out of the hedge. Blocked the worst of the branches with her own body so he wouldnt suffer any further injury, she found the back of his head and slipped her hand down to support his neck. His hair was long in back, and matted with sticky blood. Never mind the tears, the bloodstains would make her uniform shirt unwearable.
"Thats crazy talk," Mace complained behind her. She ignored him and drew the man slowly forward.
Josh unleashed another string of colorful profanities, but he knelt beside Kerry and shoved branches out of the way, helping bring the wounded man out of the hedge. "I guess we need to get the mug out of our bushes anyway."
"Youre both crazy, then," Mace opined. Kerry couldnt see Mace, but from the sound she gathered that he had given up and was on his way back inside. She found herself hoping that it wasnt to get a baseball bat, or to call 911 after all.
But why, she wondered. What do I care? The Good Samaritan thing had been a flip response to Mace and Joshs moaning, but it wasnt any kind of lifestyle choice she had made. She guessed that, as Josh might say, it meant the reaction she was having in this case was situational. Something about this battered, broken man in their bushes played to her sympathy, and she was unwilling to leave him there or to go against his stated wishes by calling the authorities.
With Joshs assistance, she was able to disentangle the man from the hedge. In the light, the blood on his face was shockingdark and glistening and obviously fresh. He might have been handsome once, but age and the damage caused by whatever had done this to him had taken care of that. She felt, more than ever, an urgency about getting him inside, getting his bleeding stopped, and probably trying to prevent shock.
"Can you stand up?" she asked him, not sure if he was even still conscious. But he forced his eyes open again, raised his head, and looked at her with something like kindness. His mouth curled into an agonized smile.
"Not a chance," he whispered. Then his head drooped, his eyes closed, his muscles went limp. For the first time, his grip on her forearm eased. She touched his neck, felt the pulse there.
"Hes still alive," she declared.
"But hes dead weight," Josh said. Josh waswell, "lean" was a polite way to put it. "Scrawny" came to mind. And the stranger was a big man, probably a little more than six feet tall, a couple hundred pounds. "You think we can carry him?"
Kerry spoke without hesitation, without doubt. "We can carry him. You take his feet."
"Oh, I almost forgot," Josh said. He used the name that the housemates had applied to Kerry ever since theyd become familiar with her stubborn streak. "Bulldog."
Hoisting the strangers shoulders, she grinned at Josh, way down at the other end. "Woof."