January 2024: On the California Coast

The California coast. It’s 840 miles long and has over 400 public beaches. Southern California has wide, sandy beaches, like those you’ll see at Cayucos, Malibu, La Jolla. Up north, you’ll see rugged, rocky coasts carved by the ceaseless waves, reminding you that the Pacific Ocean is anything but peaceful. The water is cold, the waves are huge, and watch out for rip currents and sneaker waves. Those picturesque beaches are likely to be shrouded in fog—and mystery.

This month, our short stories take us to Big Sur on a rainy night and Mendocino on a cold day.

D. Z. Church

Swept Away

Image of a cliff

The ocean fomented, driven by a fierce gale onto the cliff wall. The sweep of the lighthouse beam cut a narrow swath through the turbulent, rain driven night. Abigail cornered her Studebaker Commander on a narrow section of the Pacific Coast Highway, the high beams glanced over a man walking the narrow verge between the road and forever.

He strode with purpose down the slope from Hurricane Point toward the lighthouse, the first point of light on a night her mother called a huddler, the type of night you taped your windows, lit a fire, and prayed for morning. Abigail swerved onto the shoulder. She leaned across the passenger seat and cranked the window open. Sticking an arm out the window, she motioned the lost, wet soul over. Reaching her, he leaned in the open window, rain running down his nose.

He was hatless, a rain slicker draped his frame. Sodden flannel pants clung to his legs, rain dripped off his shoelaces and his puddle-stained shoes.

“It’s a terrible night to be out. I can take you as far as the Naval Facility. I’m picking up my mother, she cooks there.” Something stopped Abigail from revealing more.

He opened the door, shook like a wet dog, then folded himself into the passenger seat. “Wet.”

Abigail bucked her head, an understatement if she ever heard one. “Someone may be able to take you down to Big Sur if that’s where you’re headed.”

He shook his head. Droplets splashed Abigail’s cheek. She studied him. His profile was classic, straight nose, strong chin, a draw-me face like the ones in the ads. He glanced at her, his eyes were brown, so was his hair. The type of face you saw, noted it as attractive, and couldn’t recall in detail ten minutes later. Nothing notable, but everything, an actor’s face, an everyman.

He squinted. “Committing me to memory?”

She heard a bit of accent. Was she imagining it? Or was it the night, the setting, and the news of Russian moles infiltrating U.S. facilities, like those at Fort Ord and the listening facility where her mother worked.

“Any reason I shouldn’t?” Abigail asked.

“None. My car broke down a way back. I left my luggage in it.”

Abigail would have seen a car along the road. “Where?”

“Other side of the big cliff,” he ticked his head back up the road. Everyone knew Hurricane Point, he didn’t.

Abigail kept her eyes on the road, determined to signal the watchman at the facility’s entry gate. This indistinguishable man, with the foreign roll to his r’s and the sight slur on some vowels was fabricating with his every word. The vulnerability of her situation hit her like a wrecking ball. A young woman, a deserted road, and a man. She had stopped, of her own volition, he hadn’t signaled her, as though he waited for a more appropriate ride – a fellow traveler?

“Here’s the gate,” Abigail signaled right then navigated her gray car toward the lighted shack, the tires slipping on the muddy side road.

Mid-way down the lane, he commanded, “Stop!”

She sped up, slid, righted, and aimed for the gate and the watchman silhouetted within the shed.

He fidgeted with the left pocket of his slicker, pointing whatever it held at her. “Now!”

She slammed on the brakes, the tires spewing gravel. He ejected himself from the fishtailing car. Three quick flashes of light blazed from cypress trees marking the cliff’s edge, the ocean below. Steps later, he pulled a penlight from his left pocket and signaled across the field. A set of dots and dashes responded from the trees.

The man ran into the gale, his slicker flapping, rain ghosting him as he crossed the open ground. Abigail gunned the car. The watchman greeted her by name as words tumbled from her mouth. Minutes later, sailors spread out from the barracks, their flashlights fireflies in the night.

Standing at the edge of the field, Abigail eyed a clearing in the trees. The strobe of the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens lit a craft hovering where the waves began to crest.

The next arc lit a phosphorescent wake aimed at a hulking shadow roiling out to sea.

Janet Dawson

Deadly Coast

Image of a cave

Bethany raised the camera. She was losing the light on this chilly January afternoon and she wanted to get more shots of the blowhole.

Here on the Mendocino headlands, crashing waves from the Pacific Ocean had burrowed inland over millennia, water digging a sea cave beneath land weakened by erosion. A marine geyser expelled water upward until the land gave way and created a shaft exposed to the sky. Below a layer of vegetation, the blowhole’s sides were bare rock full of striations and outcroppings where plants had taken root. Farther down, blue water mingled with green and white, churning in the confined space.

There were blowholes all over the coast. This one, an easy walk from Mendocino’s Main Street, was a popular site for townspeople, tourists, and adventurous kayakers who paddled from the ocean into the sea cave.

Bethany’s hip nudged the wooden fence built in a rough circle around the blowhole. Then she noticed a section of the fence a few yards away. Was that rail broken? Dangerous. She looked down, eyes widening. The red-and-black plaid shirt didn’t belong in the roiling water at the bottom of the blowhole. Especially since the shirt was worn by a woman who floated on the waves, arms outstretched, long dark hair fanned around the head.

Bethany backed away from the fence and pulled her phone from her pocket.

“I may have seen her before,” she told one of the sheriff’s deputies later, when they’d taken a small inflatable into the blowhole to retrieve the woman’s body. “But I can’t recall where.”

The deputy gave her his card. “If you think of anything, call us.”

When the deputies took away the body, Bethany headed for home. Gran came out of the kitchen, carrying a cup of tea. “What’s going on? I saw flashing lights from the upstairs window.”

“A body in the blowhole,” Bethany said. “A woman. The top rail of the fence looked broken. She must have fallen.”

“Did someone see her fall?” Gran asked. “People are hiking the headlands all the time, and kayakers going in and out of the sea cave. Someone would have seen something.”

Bethany agreed. “I would have noticed. I’ve been taking pictures of the blowhole for days, in all sorts of light, so I can enter them in the art show. But I did step away when a group of people came along.” She paused, distracted. “Maybe I did see something and didn’t realize it. Let me look at the pictures.”

Back in her office, she connected her camera to her computer and downloaded photos she’d taken over the past few days. The blowhole shots were good. She had a few random shots that ordinarily she would have discarded, showing the people who’d approached the blowhole. She flicked backwards through the pictures.

Wait a minute. There, in the distance. She enlarged the shot. Two people were walking on the trail nearby. A woman with long hair, wearing a purple T-shirt, arms crossed over her as though she was cold. The man who walked with her wore a red-and-black plaid shirt. Bethany clicked forward, into the next shot. The man had removed his shirt. The snake tattoo on his left arm extended all the way to his wrist. He was handing the shirt to the woman. She enlarged again, but she couldn’t make out the man’s face. Was it the same woman? She’d glimpsed the dead woman’s face briefly. She couldn’t be sure. As for the shirt, red-and-black plaid was common enough.

Bethany sighed. She went back to the photos she’d taken Saturday night at the local pub where her friend’s band played. What was that? She enlarged one shot and stared at it. Standing to the right of the band was a woman wearing a purple T-shirt. And next to her, a man in a red-and-black plaid shirt, the cuffs rolled up, revealing his tattooed forearm. It looked like the man and the woman were arguing.

She enlarged the shot again, looking at the man’s face. She recognized him now. He worked as a bartender at the pub.

Bethany reached into her pocket and pulled out the deputy’s business card, and her phone.