Time for tea? Or maybe a shot of tequila?
[Three Dog Night \\ Out in the Country]
But they just stood there staring at one another, wondering who would be the first to break the silence.
Charles had never really accepted his father, not since their unforced reunion two years before. And then, after his father financially bailed out Forbes and kept him from losing his house, he’d felt a lingering unease between himself and the old architect – his father, and those unsettled feelings had remained an account that he’d never bothered to reconcile. His mother had rarely talked about Sumner, his father, and when she had her comments had been constricted, almost remote generalizations, too abstract for the boy to glean any useful information about the man he’d never met. She’d never put him down, yet neither had she built him up; Tracy had been content to let Sumner’s memory wither away into nothingness – and that vacuum turned out to be fertile ground for the seeds of another fatherless teenager’s distrust.
Or, at least she had been content until she grew sick, for she must’ve known her brother wouldn’t succeed as a parent, and that sooner or later Forbes would have to come to Sumner for help. In the end, she never relented, she never talked to her children about their father, yet at least she’d given her brother Forbes the tools he’d need to make contact with Sumner.
Yet because Tracy had never paved the way for a reunion of any kind, this was, perhaps, her final abdication of responsibility to her children. She in effect left everything about their father to chance, in effect hoping that Sumner would accept them as his children, yet she never let on her hope that Sumner might take them in.
And it was here, in her final abdication, that lack of trust defined their future. To Charles, it was as if she had she been saying that Sumner was categorically untrustworthy. Or, he wondered now as he stared at the man on the boat, had she been tacitly admitting that she’d been wrong about Sumner all along, that she’d never even given him a chance to prove himself as a father, and that as her death approached she regretted her choice?
Yet even now Charles remained locked inside his mother’s abdication, suffocating under the weight of so many unknowns, yet among them swirling about the moment was that this was an unexpected chance at reconciliation. And Sumner recognized it as such when he saw his boy standing down there on the dock with his arms full of duffel bags, so he jumped down to the dock to help shoulder the load.
“Well, this is an unexpected pleasure,” Sumner said to his son as he plucked a duffel strap from the boy’s shoulder. “I had no idea you were coming out for a visit.”
“A friend of yours,” Charles said, “that writer, he called and insisted that I come.”
“Really? Did he tell you why?”
“No. He said you’d tell me when I got here.”
Sumner nodded, but he said nothing else about the matter. “Well, let’s get your things stowed…but Elizabeth? Won’t you introduce me to your friend?”
“Sure, Pops. Dad, this is Deni Elliot, she’s a third year. Deni, this is, well, Dad!”
He held out his hand. “Deni? Do call me Charles, if you please. But goodness me, won’t someone tell me what a third year is?”
Deni Elliot stepped forward and took Sumner’s hand. “Nice to meet you, and I have to say I’ve been a fan of your work for years. And I just finished my third year of medical school at Davis. I met your daughter in a biochem seminar a few months ago and when I learned she was a sailor, well, we’ve been sailing whenever we could ever since.”
“Really? Excellent. I was thinking of taking a quick trip down to Monterey the day after tomorrow, so I hope that will work out for you.”
After their duffels were hauled down below and the sleeping arrangements sorted out, the four walked the Fisherman’s Wharf district for what felt like hours, but before heading back to the boat for the evening they stopped off and bought crab and scallops and mountains of fresh shrimp. Once back aboard, Liz and Deni took the forward cabin, leaving Charles to manage in the aft cabin with his father. Sumner was in the galley and had just started rearranging the fridge when his iPhone chirped; when he saw it was Patrick he took the call.
“It’s happening!” Patrick screamed. “Right now!”
And then the line went dead. Gripped by a sudden overwhelming panic, he slammed the galley fridge shut and went to the breaker board and began throwing switches, then he went to the aft cabin.
“Charles, come with me please,” Sumner said before he scrambled up the companionway. When they were both in the cockpit he turned to the boy and tried to remain calm: “There’s been a large earthquake up north and a large tsunami is headed our way. As soon as I tell you, cast off that line, the one forward on the right side.”
“So, it’s happening?” his son asked.
“Ah, so Patrick told you?”
And when his son nodded they both just smiled. Grey always thought of everything, didn’t he?
But when he started the diesel both Liz and Deni came darting up the companionway.
“What’s up, Dad?”
“I’m afraid it’s time to leave. Deni? Would you stand by the aft dock lines? Hold her stern in until I tell you, please.” Once the engine was idling smoothly he toggled the bow thruster’s joystick and confirmed operation then he flipped on the spreader lights. “Charles? Cast off your lines and make sure all lines up there are safely aboard. Liz? Cast off the spring lines now, would you?” He toggled the thruster again and used prop-walk to push away from the dock, then he looked at Deni. “Okay, lines in now please, Deni,” he said gently.
“Dad,” Liz repeated, “what’s going on?”
“There’s just been a large earthquake off Vancouver Island…”
Then he was cut off by an intense, deep rumbling that seemed to be coming from every direction all at once, and he threw the wheel hard to port and continued to use the thruster to push the bow around, but over the next few seconds the air filled with acrid dust, then the overpowering odor of ruptured gas lines fell over the wharf area. Once clear of the encircling breakwater, Sumner turned for the Golden Gate and ran the throttle up to 2300RPM, then he powered up the radar and sonar – just as a colossal screeching metal-on-metal sound began grinding away the silence; everyone turned and watched as skyscrapers trembled and then leaned drunkenly, and then a slender tower slammed into another and this was, Sumner knew, going to start a chain reaction – like dominoes falling one into the next and the next. Fires blossomed and then everyone looked up and saw that airliners were turning away from Oakland and San Francisco International, heading away from the heaving earth and the spreading fires. They left the marina breakwater to port and turned towards Alcatraz as explosions filled the air with more and more smoke.
“Dad! Look!” Liz screamed, pointing at the Golden Gate Bridge, and he turned to look at their escape route in time to see the north tower rise up out of the sea, just as the south tower fell away in a cloudy, grinding crash. And then everyone watched in horror as the central span simply gave way and fell in a coiling, serpentine heap, instantly disappearing beneath a confused jumble of spreading waves.
“How far away is that?” Charles asked.
Sumner adjusted the range circles on the radar and ran a bearing line: “Just under four miles. Call it forty-five minutes to get there.”
“Get there?” Charles cried. “What’ll we do when we get there?”
“Use the sonar, pick our way through the rubble…”
“And what about survivors?” Charles cried. “What’ll we do about anyone in the water?”
Sumner just shook his head. “We’ll do what we can, son.”
And then the tsunami sirens started wailing.
Ignoring the roar of skyscrapers collapsing behind them, Sumner pulled up the tide tables on the chartplotter and noted it was slack water, a period of no tidal pull, but that the tides would soon turn and begin rushing out the constriction beyond the collapsed bridge. That, in turn, would collide with the inrushing tsunami, potentially adding to the height of the wave…
And without thinking he pushed the throttle forward a little more, increasing their speed through the water to a little over eight knots, then he looked at the tachometer and pulled the power back a little – to be on the careful side. But everyone turned again when the sounds of multiple explosions came rolling across the water, and Deni pointed at a growing wall of flames to the northeast, near Vallejo. “Fuel storage depots,” she said. “Chevron, I think.”
Then Sumner rubbed his eyes when it appeared that Sausalito had just jumped about twenty feet in the air, but then the city as quickly fell straight down – only to be replaced by the sea. Then they could see police helicopters flying over the ruins all around the little town, and for some reason, Sumner remembered he’d yet to turn on his VHF radio.
“Tsunami warning!” the computerized voice broadcasting on Weather 1 said pleasantly. “Take shelter on higher ground immediately. Tsunami warning, tsunami imminent, first wave now passing NOAA warning buoy 4-6-0-1-3 and approaching from the northwest at 3-3 knots, estimated wave height now 2-5 feet…”
Sumner looked at his depth gauge, noted that it had been holding steady at 59 feet, but now he wondered just how much all that bridge debris might foul their passage over the collapsed bridge. “Charles? In the compartment, there, under the aft deck, you’ll find a spotlight. Could I have that, please?” Once he had the light plugged in and turned on, he handed it to Charles again. His son gave a sweep ahead of the boat and already they could see dozens of bodies bobbing about on the surface. “Deni? Would you get ready to deploy the man-overboard gear? Charles? You might stand by on the swim platform in case we need to pull someone aboard?”
“What can I do, Dad?” Liz asked.
“Take the spotlight, check our way ahead. If you see anyone in distress shine the light on them and call them out, let me know.”
Soon they were passing the Presidio and the old base was swarming with helicopters loading up VIPs and carrying them somewhere up north, and now more than a few fishing boats were leaving the marinas along the north shoreline…
“Tsunami imminent,” Weather 1 repeated. “Tsunami now passing the Point Reyes Light, speed now 3-5 knots and wave height now 2-7 feet above tidal mean. Tsunami warning. Take shelter on higher ground immediately!”
“It’s coming in from the northwest,” Deni said, “and the depth holds at 60 feet until you hit the north side of the entrance channel; it drops to 29 really fast there. That wave is gonna hit the undersea ridge and my guess is it will probably get a lot taller, but it also sounds like it’s gonna hit around Point Lobos and Mile Rocks Light.”
“So the wave could lose energy?” Sumner asked.
And Elliott nodded. “Yeah. Maybe. What bothers me is what if part of the wave comes in the Golden Gate? It might start swirling around, you know, like make real big eddies as it squeezes in through the entrance.”
Sumner zoomed out and looked at the chart on his display. “I see what you mean,” he sighed. “Any suggestions? Any idea which side of the channel could get more dangerous?”
He nodded, then a sonar alarm popped and he saw a large object a hundred yards ahead that appeared to be a car – only it was about ten feet beneath the surface – yet the sonar had enough resolution for him to identify the type of car it was. “Looks like a Toyota just ahead,” he said, “and I think it’s a Rav4, maybe ten feet down.”
“Can you see any movement with that thing?”
“I can see fish swimming, but nothing is moving in the car. Okay, wait one. I think I’ve got a swimmer in the water,” Sumner said as he pointed off to the right a little.
Liz swung the spotlight and Charles got ready – just in case – and then they saw a girl swimming their way, with a dog swimming by her side…
So Sumner slipped the transmission into neutral and let the speed bleed off – just as he saw a vast line appear dead ahead on the radar screen. “Tsunami is on radar now, looks like six miles out – so we have a few minutes to get the girl onboard and then get stuff secured.”
The girl in the water stopped and screamed, then she waved her hands at Sumner.
“We’re coming for you,” Charles called out. “Keep swimming our way if you can.”
But Sumner could tell the girl was exhausted so he slipped back into gear and powered towards her once again, then he cut power and swung the stern around, putting Charles in a good position to reach out for her…
…and his son leaned out as best he could and just caught her hand, then he pulled the girl aboard; Deni hopped down to the swim platform and grabbed the dog, a very frightened retriever of some sort, and when he saw both were safely onboard Sumner pointed the bow towards the area where the huge red bridge had collapsed – concentrating on the jumbled mass of wreckage he saw on sonar just beneath the water’s surface. “This is going to be close,” he muttered to himself, concentrating one moment on the wreckage in the sonar image and the next looking at the wave on radar as it approached Point Lobos.
Then, as everyone looked on, the huge, breaking wave slammed into the cliffs and bluffs above Baker Beach and Lincoln Park, much of the water rushing inwards towards Golden Gate Park, but a large wall of the crashing water came bouncing back towards the entrance to the bay, and so directly at The Silent Wake. Sumner watched the new wall take shape and rush their way, and at that point, he turned directly into the wave. “Everybody hang on…” he called out, his hands gripping the wheel.
But as he looked at the images onscreen he slammed the power to full ahead, accelerating the sailboat to hull speed…
“What are you doing?” Deni cried.
“It’s all a matter of timing now,” Sumner said. “As the wave crosses the remnants of the bridge it ought to increase the apparent depth as we cross over the wreckage, and that might be enough for us to clear all the debris,” he said, pointing at the jumbled debris field ahead and just beneath the water’s surface. “It is, however, going to be close.”
But while the tsunami was building again, it was now nowhere near as tall as it had been, and Sumner smiled as his boat climbed the wave, then gently began surfing down the backside – and so all the while the remains of the Golden Gate Bridge remained a few meters beneath the boat’s keel.
He turned and watched the tsunami roar into the bay, and he stared, aghast, as his eyes took in the mountains beyond Oakland and Berkeley. Everywhere he looked he saw forested hillsides completely ablaze, the east side of the bay now awash in a bright orange glow. The tsunami would, he knew, put out the fires ravaging Oakland and Vallejo, but he doubted anyone would survive a wave twenty feet tall moving at twenty miles per hour. When he could stand the sight no more he turned to the wheel and steered out to the hundred-foot line marked on the chart, and there he turned south towards Half Moon Bay.
There was wind enough to sail so he rolled out the genoa and then hoisted the main, and when he went back to the helm he cut the engine and silence enveloped their little cocoon. “Liz? Think you could get some hot cocoa going for our guest?”
Still, what he remembered most about that night was looking at everyone gathered around him in the cockpit, and everything had been bathed in that same nether-worldly glow. The white deck, everyone’s pale, frightened face…everything was orange, and he knew then that he was staring into the open gates of Hell, but that now a great new darkness beckoned.
The little girl’s name was Haley, and the dog, an idiotic Irish Setter with the intelligence of boiled cabbage, did not belong to her. And so of course the very first thing the hound did was come up to Sumner and sit on his lap. Then it started licking Sumner’s chin and rubbing all over his chest, apparently staking out the old man as his new best friend. Sumner, for his part, started rubbing the pup behind the ears – cementing the deal.
Haley was, on the other hand, hovering somewhere between the states of denial, shock, and despair. She had just watched her parents and little brother drown and all she really understood was that the life she had known, the only things she understood, were now all gone. Her grandparents lived in Mill Valley and they were the only other family she had; no one answered the phone when Liz tried calling the number in Mill Valley, and an hour later all the power in the region went down, and with it went cell service not a half hour later. There was no power in Half Moon Bay when they passed in the night, and when they sailed past Monterey later the next afternoon not even the Coast Guard answered on Channel 16.
But as Liz made lunch that afternoon the SatPhone on the chart table chirped and Sumner answered the call from Patrick.
“AIS appears to be down everywhere,” Patrick stated without preamble. “Did you make it out of the city without issue?”
“We’re southbound, just passing Monterey. It was terrible, Patrick, just awful. Where are you?”
“We passed Tatoosh Rock a few hours ago. Was it that bad?”
“Bad?” Sumner sighed. “Yes, you could say that. We picked up a ten-year-old girl in the water, and also a dog. C’est la vie.”
“Do you have StarLink set up and running?”
“Damn. Yes, but I haven’t been on all night. Simply forgot it was there.”
“Understood. Uh, look, it appears that cities all along the coast have taken a massive hit, the damage is exceptionally bad anywhere near the San Andreas fault, and Los Angeles was as badly damaged as the Bay Area.”
“So, what you’re saying is we should think about heading directly to the Marquesas?”
“Yes. Get that watermaker up and running and set sail for Nuku-Hiva. You should be able to replenish stores there, especially with fruits and vegetables. How far away is that on your plotter?”
“Not quite 3300 miles.”
“Okay. So, call it 20 days. Have you enough food onboard?”
“It might be tight as far as fresh food, but we’ll do okay.”
“Okay. Get that watermaker operational, and check your email more often, will you?”
“Yes, will do.”
“Take care, Charles. In case we don’t see each other again, I want you to know how much I’ve appreciated your friendship.”
And then, just like that the line went dead again. And Sumner didn’t like the sudden note of finality in Patrick’s voice, either, but he went up to the helm and changed course – again – setting up the HydroVane and powering down the autopilot. “Okay, 202 degrees and straight on ’til morning, right Tracy?”
The little fox had kept an eye on the red-headed hound and now she jumped up on Sumner’s shoulder, then curled around his neck and promptly fell asleep. His eyes swept the far horizon – that loneliest of places where only blue meets blue – but he listened to the gurgling bow wave and to the heart beating so close to his own, and even after such a hideous night, he knew he was where he was supposed to be.
And a few minutes later Liz came up the companionway steps carrying a greek salad thick with Kalamata olives and feta and walnuts and he smiled – until he saw her staring at the animal curled up next to his own beating heart.
Her head was canted to the left a little and she squinted at the incongruity of the sight of a fox asleep around her father’s neck, so with one eyebrow arched inquisitively she faced her father: “Dad? Is that a fox?”
But he smiled as he shook his head, then he turned his face to the sky and smiled at all the unknowns waiting for them just ahead. “No, no, this is Tracy. Why don’t you come and say hello.”
© 2023 adrian leverkühn | abw | fiction, every last word of it…
[The Youngbloods \\ Sunlight]