Chapter 1 : The Dying of the Light
A day earlier Colin lay on the sunbaked blacktop of the school’s basketball court. His body ached though his hands and arms had taken the brunt of the fall. The asphalt’s slow burn into his thigh barely registered in his brain. His head was swimming. His brown locks covered the smattering of freckles across his forehead and obscured the figure who loomed over him. The copper taste of blood trickled into his mouth. This can’t be happening, God, please get me out of this.
“R-red, s-s-stop!” Colin stuttered.
Red Arnold cracked his knuckles as he looked down at Colin. A lean and muscular junior with a shaved head, Red was known throughout San Clemente High School for sporting a black flight jacket and steel-toed Doc Martens, smoking and handing out beatings to anyone he felt deserved them. Colin had often heard the wails of Red’s other prey coming from the outdoor quad, near the track. Red screaming into the faces of his victims, “I’m kicking ass and taking names!”
“S-s-stop!” Colin tried to cover his midsection as he folded his knees to his chest.
“D-d-d-duh” Red mimicked. “You sound like a retard. You gonna crap your pants next?” Red delivered a swift kick to Colin’s ribs. “Get up, punk!”
Pain stabbed through Colin’s torso, but he knew the next kick might be more aptly placed to his face or his groin. He only had so many hands.
“Punk.” Red spat and walked away.
Colin heard footsteps and looked up to see Jennifer Straten run toward him.
“Are you ok?” she asked.
He couldn’t keep her gaze. Unlike the league of perpetually tanned girls that stared into their cell phones at lunch, Jennifer was fair-skinned, quiet, and introspective, she’d just moved from England late in the school year. Her long golden locks accented a warm smile and the brightest blue eyes Colin had ever seen. While other students had teased her for the way she spoke, Colin liked her accent. She was shy and wore little to no make-up, but Colin thought she didn’t need to. She had a face that didn’t require blush or mascara. He’d bumped into her in passing between classes, and when they had lunch together, she’d tell him about her home or read him passages from her Gothic books – mostly Edgar Allan Poe. She was weird and he liked it. She didn’t make him talk. She understood.
One lunch Jennifer hadn’t come to their usual spot. She’d wandered by the track. From a distance, Colin had followed her, and as he approached, he saw Red had hemmed her in against a fence.
“I really like your skin, it’s soft.” Red said as he grabbed her hand, “Someone like you might need a friend over here in the States.”
Colin felt helpless watching the exchange, but he forced his feet closer. He couldn’t walk away from her, not like this.
Red put his hand on Jennifer’s arm, “Is it true what they say about English chicks? They like spotted dick?”
“I don’t know, I need to go,” Jennifer said.
“J-J-Jenn, I, th-think the office is l-looking f-for you,” Colin called out.
Red spun around and glared at Colin. Jennifer saw her chance and pushed past him, grabbing Colin’s arm as she walked away.
Red’s cold gaze that day had told Colin all he needed to know. He was next on the list.
“Colin?” Jennifer’s voice bought his mind back to the present.
Colin stood up, and limped past her. His legs aching from the beating. “I-I h-have to go.” He mumbled, too ashamed to keep her gaze.
Snide remarks and snickers dogged Colin through the rest of his school day until he was finally free to leave. He rode his rusted black Huffy bicycle past countless apartments and condos following Avenida Pico as it winded toward the Pacific Coast Highway. Dana Point Harbor was four miles away, but the sidewalks along the Sunset Highway faced the Pacific and the sight of the rolling surf soothed him. As he rode north next to the shoreline, he looked out past the breaking wash to the sea, and it gave him peace.
The sun was setting across the water, reflecting reds, oranges, and yellows. To Colin’s eyes, it was as if the sea was on fire. Gulls floated across the watery flames like ships crashing into each other, echoing their cannon calls for miles.
If only I could live in this place, this one moment. But Colin knew the beauty of a thing was temporary. His English teacher had forced him and his classmates to memorize a poem the year before. Colin had chosen “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” by Frost. The images of light it evoked made him think of his childhood, his father, and how all good things had to end. He wished that wasn’t true.
As Colin rode his bike into the harbor’s large parking lot, he saw the last rays of the sun dip below the many shops, boats, and the horizon. When Colin had been a child, his father, John, had regaled him with stories of pirates, of bounty, and especially Captain Richard Henry Dana. Dana had brought a brig, The Pilgrim, into the protected cove, and laid anchor to trade with Spanish merchants. His mother, Lane, rolled her eyes as John stretched certain facts and spun stories of how Dana was in fact a privateer, battling pirates and hiding stolen treasure in the many caves up and down the rocky cliffs of the coastline. Colin remembered how one night, years before, the family had even toured a replica of The Pilgrim -- now a permanent tourist fixture anchored in the harbor.
Deep down Colin knew his dad had made up the stories, but he loved them anyway, and he knew secretly, his mother did as well.
But nothing gold stays. Colin learned that the night his mother suddenly pulled him into her arms, crying, after receiving a phone call. He had learned the truth of that as he watched his father slowly slip away in a hospital bed – a victim of a senseless hit and run. Despite his pleading and praying, his father never opened his eyes again. Colin didn’t truly believe it was over until he stood over his father’s grave, clutching a 2x3 photo of them camping.
Colin pulled his bike up to a bike rack outside The Jolly Roger Restaurant. The bayfront eatery was once considered fine dining but had over the last few years fallen into disrepair. What had once been an hour-wait waterfront treat, now hosted an empty square of tourist shops with darkened windows. He didn’t mind. The smell of salt air and the cry of the gulls were an escape when the world closed in around him. No matter how wretched the waves of life tossed, Colin knew the harbor was his hideaway. A bit of flotsam to cling to, that reminded him of how things used to be.
Lane Deveroux checked the wall clock behind the family eating at one of her tables. Her break was about to start and she needed it. The Jolly Roger’s typical Friday night rush had been drawn out when a score of families arrived, starving and ready for immediate service.
“Excuse me, waitress?” A man stood in the booth to get her attention. “Would it be possible to take a quick one for us?” He handed Lane his phone.
She was already five minutes into her break and desperate for a breather, but nodded and took his phone, a manicured smile on her face. Good service meant good tips. And they needed the money.
“Okay on three guys - Go Dodsons!” The man beamed at his wife and two teenage daughters.
“Dad, seriously?” One of the girls sighed while the other rolled her eyes.
“Humor him girls” the mother gently smiled, “You’ll share these photos with your kids one day.”
That one hurt. Lane’s smile broke for a second before quickly taking the picture and handing the phone back to the man. As she strode to the kitchen to hang up her apron and clock out, the scene played over in her head. How many times had her family passed on a photo they could’ve taken? How many memories were lost in time?
She unhooked the oversized brown cardigan her late husband had always worn and wrapped herself in it. A comfort in the chilly night air, it dwarfed her thin frame and still held his scent of aged bourbon and sandalwood. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in some glass as she made her way to the back door of the restaurant. Worry lines had found a permanent home on her once youthful face. Her brunette hair was pulled back into a bun, and bags settled under her eyes.
Too many sleepless nights and it's not gonna get any easier. She made her way to the sidewalk railing overlooking the docks and boats below. After John passed she’d made it a priority to spend more time with Colin, to keep their little family tightly knit, but bills came due, and then…
She wouldn’t let herself go there. Without thinking she pulled a pack of Virginia Slims from her coat pocket and lit one, taking a long drag to stifle the tears welling up inside her. Once upon a time she had hope for them. A month after the funeral she’d surprised Colin by taking the day off from work to kidnap him from school.
“Mom, you m-m-missed it.” Colin had mumbled as they blew past the offramp to San Clemente Highschool.
“Don’t I know it.” She said with a devious smile. “I think it’s time we have a day for us. A ditch day on life. What do you say?”
Colin’s eye brightened, “Are you s-serious? You sound like Dad.”
“Your father was not the only fun one in the family, mister. In fact I had to introduce him to rollercoasters because he’d never been on one.”
“D-Dad?” her son smiled, “How he’d r-react? W-what coaster?”
“Well he almost puked if you must know, and I thought I’d take you there to see for yourself.”
Her son’s downcast demeanor had lifted that day as they rode every ride she secretly dreaded - but it was worth it.
“We’re still a family hun,” she had told him, “and I’m always here when you need me.”
But even that promise was about to be broken. Her ongoing cough had led to tests and x-rays, and blood panels. Even before the oncologist had sat her down for the talk, she knew something wasn’t right. She’d spent the last week letting it sink in but at some point, she’d have to finally tell her son the truth. The kid had been blindsided too many times already. He’d be here soon and she prayed the words would come.
As Colin approached her, Lane put out her cigarette and hugged him, “Baby, what did they do to you?”
“It’s f-fine,” Colin mumbled.
“You don’t have your jacket either? The fog’s supposed to be rolling in tonight,” She looked him over and put her hand to his bruised head, wiping a smudge away with a sleeve that hung past her wrist. “What do you want me to do?”
“Stop w-w-with those.” He glanced at the cigarette she held in her other hand.
Lane sighed, “I know. You’re right hon, more now than ever.”
Colin’s eyes searched hers.
“W-What is it?” he blurted.
“Walk with me, baby. We need to talk about something.” She turned back towards the sea walk overlooking the murky waters of the harbor. Colin followed her around the side of the restaurant. Lane leaned against the railings, took a smooth stone lying on them and rolled it in her hand, she stared at the quartz lines that swirled in concentric circles across its dark surface - avoiding her son’s gaze.
“I told you I had a doctor’s appointment last week?”
“I didn’t tell you all of it. They think they spotted something in my lungs. Some kind of cancer.” She handed Colin the stone as she searched his face for understanding.
“Are you s-serious, Mom? Why didn’t y-you say anything?”
Lane saw her son’s face flush red, and his throat tighten. This wasn’t going to be easy to swallow.
“Babe, I just found out a few days ago, and I didn’t know how to say it, and then if I did…” She brought a fresh cigarette to her lips then paused and tossed it aside.
“Th-they can cut it out r-right?”
“Honey, it’s pretty far along,” Lane’s voice faltered, “I’m not sure that’s possible.”
“I was s-supposed to just find out when you d-died?” Colin screamed at her.
“Colin I am so, so sorry.” Tears welled in her eyes. “Your father and I— “
“No! D-Don’t bring Dad into this.” Colin’s face flushed. “He gave up, and you’re just l-like him. J-Just lay down and d-die? How could you, Mom? How could you? I h-hate you!” Colin yelled and ran from her into the night.
Lane clenched the railing to stop herself from following him, she had no more promises to give.