It didn’t take long to make the house presentable and write the letter with directions for Cousin Claire. She checked the stove burners and the heater. Her note was on the kitchen table where anyone would find it.
Purse, wallet, and keys were all she took. No cash. She wasn’t planning on stopping for anything, but she didn’t want to be caught driving without a license.
Pulling out of the driveway, she glanced down the street. Her vision lingered on Jessica’s front door. Jessica had come over with meals the first week afterward, but when she saw the food piling up in the kitchen, she stopped coming over at all.
Most of the neighbors had visited in the first week or two, but they had their own problems. The eruption of Mt St. Helens had affected everyone in Cowlitz County. Jobs, property, lives were lost. Recovery would take years.
Driving to State Route 4, her mind played over the events of that weekend nine months before.
Tom had taken their son, Jude, and their dog, Toby, on a fishing trip to celebrate Jude moving up to middle school.
They had invited her, but she said she needed some alone time. They wouldn’t be gone long.
She thought she’d garden, bake, and watch movies with their new VCR. Tom had taught her how to use it and she was thrilled to be able to see old movies on her own time.
The day had shone sunny and clear. Somewhat unusual for the Pacific Northwest in May. She’d waved them off that Saturday morning, then gone into the house to clean up and have quiet time. After baking bread and taking a walk, she got herself a glass of wine and fiddled with the VCR.
Just as An Affair to Remember opened on the screen, the phone rang. She sighed, pausing the VCR, and getting up. Tempted to let the little cassette tape record whoever was calling, she let it ring again.
“Hi, it’s Claire. What’re you doing?”
“I’m watching a movie. How are you?”
“Fine. We’re watching the news and I remembered – are the guys going camping this weekend?”
“Yes, they left this morning.”
“Well, they are saying that Mt St. Helens could do something any time. You know, it already spit out ash in March.”
“Yeah, we got some of that.”
“The guys aren’t going near there,
“No. Tom says there’s an area where people are not allowed, and he and Jude will be far downriver from there.”
“Good. It’ll probably be nothing – just some puffs like before.”
“They always get excited on the news
“Yeah. I’ll let you go back to your movie. Enjoy your alone time.”
“Thanks, Claire. I definitely will.”
As she drove along I-4 with the Columbia River on her left, she felt a small stab of guilt for leaving Claire holding the bag. But Claire could handle it, she rationalized, and she’d get everything. Her mind went back to that night.
After hanging up, she’d shivered, realizing the windows were still open. She shut them and got a blanket to curl up with. She hoped the guys caught some good fish to fry up on Monday.
As the credits rolled at end of the movie, she’d dabbed her eyes at the faithfulness of true love between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. She’d make Tom watch it next Valentine’s.
As the video tape slid from the machine, she felt a tremor. They were near a fault line, she’d heard. All that stuff down in California was bound to make its way up to Washington, the scientists said. Maybe it was just a heavy truck driving by. On a Saturday night?
She’d stayed up late to watch SNL. Steve Martin, the guest, made her laugh so much she sputtered on her second glass of wine.
After double-checking the locks, she crawled into bed at 1:30.
Sirens wailed several blocks away. She opened her heavy lids to pale sunlight wafting through the bedroom curtain. She reached out for Tom, but his side was empty. Then she remembered.
She threw off the covers, swinging her legs to the floor. Standing, she felt woozy. Two drinks in one night was a lot for her.
She putzed in the garden all morning. The roses along the fence would bloom soon.
She waved to the neighbor across the fence but didn’t speak. “This is my alone time,” she told herself.
While eating her lunch on the back porch, a boom shook the house. She stood up. A few seconds later there was another boom. Maybe something was going on at the shipyards. As she cleaned up, she noticed people running up her street and coming outside and looking up. From her kitchen window, she saw nothing. She rinsed the dishes and stepped out onto the front porch.
The sky to the east was black and it appeared to be moving toward her. Another boom sounded that made her cover her ears.
She looked around, heart pounding, but no one was close enough to talk to. Someone ran out their front door yelling! “Mt. St Helens just blew!”
Her skin prickled cold. It was supposed to be puffs, not blasts. Not blackness hunting them down. She ran into the house, grabbing her keys and purse. She didn’t even lock the door. She almost flooded the engine, but it finally started, and she backed out of the driveway.
As she made her way to Interstate 5, the air changed to a yellow-grey haze. But as she approached the onramp, she could see flashing red and blue lights. The onramp was blocked so no one could get on the freeway.
Driving now along State Route 4, her hands gripped the wheel harder as she remembered how she’d pulled into a gas station to think. Where did she think she was going anyway? The Toutle River had a lot of camping spots. She breathed deep, telling herself, “They’re fine. They’re on their way home.”
She pulled out of the lot and headed home. Between the tears resting on her eyes and the hazy air, she could barely see the lines on the road, let alone the streetlights. But she made it back to her driveway. The ash-filled air had sent everyone inside.
Inside, she got another wine cooler and sat alone on the couch, watching the TV. All regular programming was interrupted by news about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. They showed footage of a mountainside of trees, rocks, and mud flowing down the Toutle, Columbia, and Lewis Rivers. The eruption and smoke plumes aired over and over.
The number lost was unknown, but the authorities knew that some people had been inside the restricted zone. At one point the camera panned over a pick-up truck that had been crumpled like a grocery twist tie.
She went to the kitchen and threw up into the sink. The phone rang. She ran to the wall. “Tom!”
“No, it’s Claire. Are you watching the news?”
She didn’t answer.
“Are they home?”
“No,” she whispered.
“I’m coming over.” Claire hung up.
Days later, crews found the truck and the dog’s body. They were both miles from where she thought they might be.
They found no trace of Tom or Jude.
Claire stayed with her for three nights, but she had her own family to care for. She called every day at first. Eventually, she stopped answering Claire’s calls. It was too much work to talk. It hurt less to be alone, she told herself. What she meant was that it was easier to kill the pain when she was alone. Drink, pills. Claire would just tell her she needed help. That she needed to get on with her life.
Counseling helped her feel better while she was in the session, but she came home empty, with no tools to get her through the night. The pills the doctor gave her helped her sleep. The booze was the only thing that made the aching coldness go away.
Living bottle to bottle, pill to pill for almost nine months brought her to now. She was done with the pain, the loneliness. She was going to fix it – today. She’d been thinking about it for a while, getting her house in order.
Distracted, she took a steep curve near Cathlamet. Suddenly a dog stood in the middle of the highway. Toby? She screamed, swerving into the oncoming lane. Shaking, she straightened her course.
She looked in the rearview mirror, seeing only empty road. The dog must have run down the bank to the river, she reasoned. Breathing slower, she thought, “I could have been killed instantly!” Then she laughed. Killed. Wasn’t that what she wanted? Of course. Just not painful and messy and another person hurt in the process. She shook her head, wondering why she had thought it was Toby.
She drove on without incident. As she approached Ilwaco, her stomach growled. Needing a restroom, she followed the signs to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. Surely it was open to visitors on a Saturday – even in this awful weather.
She parked and went into the visitor’s center. On the counter were candy bars and mints. She didn’t have any money with her anyway. When she came out of the restroom, she looked longingly at the candy bars again.
A gruff voice said, “We’ve got coffee and cookies in the back.”
Startled, she looked around to see an older man with shoulder-length grey hair and a grey moustache sitting on a stool in a corner. His sea blue eyes gave her a penetrating look, while a smile played under his moustache.
Maybe they had lots of cream and sugar. She needed strength for her plan. “Yes.” She nodded. “I’d love some.”
He moved from the stool to the counter, opening it so that she could follow him to the break room in the back.
The room was small, with a table and chairs in the center. On the table stood a coffee maker and a plate of cookies. She could tell they were coconut. She hated coconut. She picked up a cookie as he poured the steaming black coffee into a Styrofoam cup. “Hope you like it black,” he said.
She gulped. She hated coffee anyway, but black was unbearable. She took the cup and inhaled. “Thank you.” She sipped gingerly.
“The cookies are from my gal. Valentine’s Day, you know.” This time his eyes smiled too.
“Oh.” Valentine’s Day. That’s why she was here now. What better day for a reunion? “Are you the lightkeeper?”
“Well, I was. Now, I’m just the ghost of the lightkeeper.” The skin around his eyes crinkled. His eyes were the color of the sea meeting the sky. The color of the end of the world.
“Oh.” She nibbled on the disgusting homemade cookie.
“It’s all automated now,” he said. “But I’ve nowhere else to go, so I give cookies to needy women.”
Her face flushed hot. “I’m not needy, I just didn’t bring any cash.”
He nodded. Somehow, she knew that he knew.
“Thank you”, she mumbled, setting down the cookie. “I have to be somewhere.” She stumbled out into the storm. The wind whipped her and the sea churned far below. “I could just jump here,” she thought. “But it’s too close. A slight chance of surviving.”
In her car, she wound down the hill and headed to the beach town. As the storm darkened the day, she pulled into a public parking lot. Other than a camper parked along the edge by some blackberry bushes, she was alone.
She put her purse with her ID in the trunk, safe for the police. She locked the trunk, put the keys in the glovebox and locked the doors from the inside.
As she walked onto the beach, waves frothed before her and she wondered if she could make it past the closest ones. The coffee had strengthened her. She didn’t remember when she’d last eaten.
No Valentine’s lovers walked the beach, the storm saw to that. But she would see her Valentine today. This was her plan.
Without stopping, she waded straight into the surf. By the time the water was up to her knees, her feet were numb. Just a few more feet and she’d dive in. Dive down.Swim far.
Something sounding like a seagull screamed above her. As she searched for the unfortunate bird a wave hit her in the chest, knocking her onto her backside. The water covered her head, but it quickly retreated. She stood and kept walking. When she was waist-high, she dove. As she lifted her face out to breathe, she realized that the storm had calmed, and the rain had stopped. She treaded water and looked back at the shore. It was farther away than she had thought. A small thrill of victory shot through her.
Then she saw something bobbing on the surface halfway between her and the shore. It was a dog. It rose with the swells, while paddling toward her. “Oh no!” She said out loud. “Don’t follow me.”
She began swimming toward the dog, but a feeling of sluggishness rippled through her legs. Cold, she felt so cold. She treaded water for a minute, then put her head down to swim toward the shore.
Fatigued, she stopped soon to check on the dog. It had been washed south by the current and wasn’t any closer to her or the shore than before.
Her heart clenched in panic. She could never catch up. It would be pulled south faster than she could swim. She kicked her legs harder to stay treading. They moved like tree trunks stuck in mud. She tried a butterfly stroke. “I can make it bit by bit,” she thought.
She looked around distractedly. “How did I get here?” She wondered. “I don’t want- I need – HELP!” She screamed. A flock of seagulls screamed back in response. She looked toward the lighthouse and saw one glint of light from the reflection of the setting sun.
Then it was dark. The birds disappeared. She was alone in the calm water. She strained her salt-burning eyes to see the vague shapes of shore. Was that shore or a ship? A ship! Yes, they’d save her. Save her from what? Why was she here? What had she wanted? To see Tom. To see Jude. She wanted to be with them. But not now. Not like this.
“Help!” She screamed again. A small wave went over her head.
She came up gasping and flailing. She went under again and fought to rise, dying for air. Sweet air. She broke the surface, coughing and gagging. “They’ll come for me. The lightkeeper. He knows.” She sank again. This time she couldn’t break the surface. She stopped fighting, no longer cold. No longer in pain. “Here I am,” she thought. “Alone.”