The following draft (and a very rough one at that) is the fourth segment of my NaNoWriMo novel, Sail Away. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is held each November, where writers are offered the challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. In the spirit of this global event, I am sharing my novel-in-progress here throughout the month, posting my raw writing in “real time.” I encourage my readers to comment, offer ideas and suggestions, and help me shape the outcome of this story. Thanks for reading, and I hope you join along in the fun! If you need to catch up or want to review previous sections of Sail Away, you can always click on the convenient links on the left sidebar of my site. ~rus
Sail Away, Part Four: Desperation Sally
A novel-in-progress by Rus VanWestervelt
Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.
We sip our tea in silence. I have so many questions that I want to ask Kristin that, at this moment, seem insensitive. I have my own agenda: Who sent me the package? Why me and not her? She was the one who was tied to the journal and the bottle; what do I have to do with either?
Her agenda is quite different, and I get that. She sips her tea while stuck in the loop of car crashes and that defining moment when the thread of innocence is snapped forever.
“Honey, I have some terrible, terrible news to share with you…”
The sound of her grandmother’s voice, strength and love suffusing each word, but still failing to stop the blow of what comes next.
“There’s been an accident. And your mommy and daddy—They are–, they have been —“
Another sip of tea to wash it all away, but the words swirl in her, now a part of her once more.
“They are no longer here with us.”
I look at her from across the table, artifacts strewn between us, and try to balance what we are both feeling.
She offers a simple smile and shakes her head. I get up to heat the water. Just in case.
“I was going to head back to Sally’s, but I am going to stick around here,” I say. “I figure we have to get started on that casserole or it’s going to go bad, right?”
She smiles a little more genuinely now, looks up at me, and then the tears come.
I leave the stove and walk toward her, and she leans into me as I reach her side. I take her in my arms and say nothing.
Because, really, what is there to say?
“I never got the chance to say goodbye to them. They went on one of their stupid trips and never came back. Do you know what does to a kid?”
I hold her and give her room to continue.
“And right before my birthday. Some present that was.”
As I listen to her, I realize that, in all these years, we have never celebrated her birthday. I know that it is close to now, sometime in November. But the exact date escapes me.
I hesitate to say anything, but I can’t help it. I feel like she needs to get this out now.
“Sally, isn’t your birthday coming up soon?”
“Five days. This Friday,” she says. “They died the day before.”
I mutter something stupid, trying to be supportive. She leans into me a little harder and I hold her a little tighter.
And that’s how we remain until the water boils on the stove, and I have to let her go and get up to silence the scream of the tea kettle whistle.
As I pour new cups of tea for both of us, Kristin heats up two portions of the casserole. We realize that we haven’t eaten much all day, and it might be a good idea to get focused on some things that we can control, or at the very least, make an attempt to control.
The casserole is better than anything Kristin has ever made. Fresh fettuccini noodles in a creamy cheese and garlic sauce, covered with hand-picked crab meat and then broiled to perfection. It is Chesapeake comfort food that is perfect for mid-November afternoons, especially ones like these that are filled with mystery and somber reflection.
“It’s an old family recipe,” she offers. “I figured that, with everything you’ve been going through, it might make you feel a little better. I know it worked for me when Grams used to make it after Mom and Dad died.”
I nod. “Kristin, this would cure any man’s blues.”
“Too bad Sally doesn’t like seafood. Your Mom might like some though, right? You can take a few portions to her when you head back to Towson later today.”
I had completely forgotten about getting together with Sally for the Ravens game. I pat down my pockets looking for my phone, but they are filled with only a few coins and Kristin’s note that she had tacked to my door.
“How about a second helping?” I ask, heading back into the kitchen to find my phone.
“Usually I would say no,” she says. “I mean, I made the food for you.” Kristin taps the edge of her finger against her lips after pointing at me. “But I have to admit, it’s pretty close to what Grams used to make. And it is making me feel a little better about things. . . .”
“Then seconds it is.”
I take our dishes into the kitchen and find my phone on the counter. I throw it in my pocket and bring out another round of Kristin’s now-famous “Chessarole” as I have dubbed it. Kristin digs in as I dig out my phone to call Sally.
When I slide my finger across the screen to unlock it, I see a barrage of messages and notifications. All from Sally.
Five missed calls, three messages, and 17 text messages.
Kristin looks up with renewed concern as if to say, “What now?”
I tell her about the missed messages as I begin to read Sally’s texts out loud.
I need to talk to you. . . .There is something going on in the basement with the pool table that is freaking me out. . . .Polaroids. . . . You have to meet me back at Mom’s. . . .Call me the minute you get this. . . .
And then the last one: Do you believe in ghosts?
Kristin puts her fork down and looks again at the journal and bottle between us.
“I’m guessing she got something in the mail too?”
“Not sure,” I reply. “Maybe her voice mail messages are a little more coherent.”
I look at the three messages left in voice mail, each about a minute long. I play the first one back and put it on speaker so that Kristin can hear as well.
Before she begins to speak, there is about 10 seconds of background noise – kids playing in the distance, and Sally’s husband calling for her, asking if she is okay. Sally’s response is muffled; when she speaks to me a few seconds later, the words are hushed as they are rushed, but they are also clear.
Jacob. I have to talk with you about the pool table. Or about Dad. I’m not sure which one yet. Or maybe both and they’re all related somehow and I don’t know. When you left Mom’s house this morning, I started looking through the other bottles that were around the basement, and I realized that one of dad’s favorite “treasures,” as he used to call his finds, was missing. I don’t know what happened to it, but while I was tearing apart the rest of the basement looking for it – he used to call it the Burger Bottle, I think – I remembered that I had a box of his things stored away in my attic. After I got home, I dug them out, and – Jacob. I HAVE to talk with you now about this. I can’t wait until you get here – You BETTER still be coming, Jacob! Do you hear me? Call me as soon as you get this.
Kristin and I both stare at the bottle in front of us on the table.
“You don’t think –“ she says.
“An hour ago, Kristin, I would have said ‘Impossible.’ Now, after everything you have told me about your grandfather and your parents, I’m not so sure.”
Kristin points to the phone. “The pool table — what is she talking about? I know you’ve talked about it before, and how you used to play games with your dad when you were younger. Why is she freaking out about it now?”
I give Kristin the not-so-short story about what we discovered earlier this morning. She is intrigued and hangs on to every word I say.
“So you got this pool table that’s been converted into a storage shelf simply by gluing a piece of plywood on top. Don’t get me wrong – I know I must be missing something here because I don’t really see the big deal about this.”
“It’s more about the fact that we stopped playing so abruptly when we were younger, and that Dad basically cemented that wood to the table. Why not just lay the board across and be done with it?”
“So you think something is in there? Like it’s serving as some kind of lock box?”
“Maybe. But what in the world would my father want to seal up for all these years?”
Kristin points to the phone again. “Play the other messages. This is just getting too weird.”
The second message is a butt-call; little more than mumbled words sifting through a denim pocket, signifying nothing.
“This is the last one she left,” I say, moving to the third message and pressing play.
Jacob, Sally begins in a barely audible whisper. Jacob, I’m really frightened. I’m heading back to Mom’s. Please call me immediately when you get this. I’ll explain everything when you get here. Not that you will believe anything I have to tell you. At least not yet anyway. . . . I guess you are just going to have to trust me on this one.
The rest of the message is muffled like the first one. I end the call and reach for the plain brown wrapping paper that the bottle and journal were wrapped in.
I read the return address out loud:
On Your Shore.
Not that you could believe me.
Not just yet anyway.
“Call her now,” Kristin says. “This is just too coincidental, and she doesn’t sound good at all.”
I tap “reply” on the screen of my phone, and wait for Sally to pick up.
Instead, I get her voice mail and leave a short message. When I hang up, I shoot her a quick text to let her know I called.
Kristin takes a sip of her tea, and I notice her hand shakes as she brings the cup back to the table. “Do you think she is okay?”
“Sally is one of the strongest people I know. I’m sure she’s fine.”
I put the phone down and take another bite of Kristin’s Chessarole, trying to keep everything calm and in perspective.
“Anyway,” I say, “I’m sure she’ll call me soon enough. No use letting great food go to waste.”
Kristin pushes the pasta with her fork, but doesn’t eat. “Call your mom. Maybe Sally is back in the basement and the signal is too weak. And if she is down there, I think we need to be there with her if she’s trying to lift that wood off of the pool table. I don’t know what she is going to find, but I don’t think she should be alone when she opens it.”
I like the sound of Kristin using we. I pick up the phone to call Mom, but it’s already vibrating. She beat me to it.
“Speak of the devil! I was just going to call you. Is Sally over –“
Before I can finish my sentence, Mom cuts me off.
“Yes she’s over here and she’s locked herself in that damned basement like your father used to do. Can you please come back home, Jacob, and get her out of there? She’s not answering me anymore and I don’t like any of this. I don’t like any of this at all.”
I pick up the bottle in front of me and ponder the initials “CB” etched on the bottom.
“Mom,” I say, before I hang up. “Let Sally know that I am coming over, and tell her to call me. Tell her that I know where the Burger bottle is.”
“What in the world is a Burger bottle?”
“Just tell her, Mom. Can you do that for me?”
After a long pause, she says that she will.
“I hope you have your key, Jacob. I need to take another Ambien, and by the time you get here, I won’t be good for nothin’.”
*** *** ***
When Kristin and I arrive at Mom’s house, we see Sally’s green Beetle parked out front. The purple ladybug dots that she added years ago when she first bought the car are now faded, peeling at the edges.
“I keep telling her it’s time to grow up and get a real car.”
Kristin holds on to the journal while I cradle the bottle, now back in its tube. We walk up the steps to the front door, which is locked, as I expected. I use my old house key (complete with the worn purple and yellow lanyard that shouts, “Loch Raven Raiders ROCK ‘83”) to let us in.
I hear Mom’s snoring coming from the back bedroom, a king-sized space for a single, fragile widow.
There is no sign of Sally.
“Let’s check downstairs,” I whisper to Kristin. We walk to the door that leads to the basement. This door is locked as well, and I am out of old keys on nostalgic key rings.
I rap my knuckles on the hollow door and call Sally’s name as loud as I think I can without waking Mom.
We wait for a response, but there is none. Just more silence.
“What now?” Kristin asks. We can’t just break the door down, can we?”
“No. There’s a window out back, though. It is probably covered with boxes of bottles, but it’s worth a shot.”
We head back outside and Kristin follows me as I walk around the south side of the house. At first, I don’t see the little window at all. Maybe Dad had it sealed up, I think, and I never got around to noticing it. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least bit.
When we reach the back of the house, we make our way back to the front yard, staying close to the stone wall.
I am studying the foundation of the house, in search of some kind of patch-me-up job with concrete and brick, when I trip over some wild vines that creep along the ground and up the side of the house.
The tube with the glass bottle goes flying in the air, and Kristin catches it just before it hits the ground.
“Jacob! That was close! Are you okay?”
But I do not answer her. The same vines that made me trip cover the basement window, and when I pull them away and rub the dirt from the small pane of glass, I am left speechless by what I see.
The plywood remains on top of the pool table but askew, its seal broken.
And on top lies Sally face down, motionless, her left arm disappearing into the small, open crack where the wood has been moved.
“Sally!” I scream, getting to my feet and heading back to the front of the house.
Kristin is with me every step of the way, and we are both thinking the same thing:
Suddenly, breaking down the basement door now seems like a very real option, if not the only one, to us both.
*** *** ***