Dawn, June 16
Through the fogged windshield, a mere ribbon of gray provided the only proof that a road existed where the GPS told her to turn. Would a machine lie? She didn’t know. Her head was as foggy as the glass—she couldn’t remember her own name. Fear applied her foot to the gas.
Clutching the steering wheel, she mindlessly followed the headlight beams through the thick early morning dreamscape. The robotic voice on her dash was her only guidance. Praying all would be clear soon, she turned at a nearly invisible county highway sign.
The windshield wipers swiped at heavy layers of moisture. The digital clock clicked to 5:30. She’d been driving for hours and had no idea where she was.
The headlight beams picked up an old wooden signpost that might be a welcome sign. She hit the brake, heart pounding, hoping she might recognize the town’s name.
SPIRITUAL HOME OF 325 LIVES AND COUNTLESS GHOSTS
Wisps of vapor drifted through the headlights and around the sign, blocking most of the letters except COUNTLESS GHOSTS. An owl hooted in the woods. She shivered.
To drive home the point that she was lost in the wilderness, the GPS went blank and flashed No Signal.
She almost wept. When she’d looked at the GPS in the last gas station, an address in Hillvale had been the destination programmed under HOME. She’d pinned all her hopes on that one indication that she wasn’t lost.
The only other location programmed in had been the name of the restaurant near Monterey where she’d started out. Those were her only clues. And now she was here and there was nothing, and no means of finding Cemetery Road and what she hoped would be friends and family who could help her.
After a moment of panic, she got angry. Apparently weeping wasn’t her style. There had to be answers at the end of the road. She clenched her jaw, let her foot off the brake, and continued the climb up the mountain. From the other road signs she’d passed, she knew she was in California. The names of the towns meant nothing to her.
She was praying that at the end of this nightmare, there would be people who could take her in and tell her she’d be all right.
She didn’t feel in the least all right. She didn’t even know if this was her car.
A deer leaped out of nowhere, and she slammed the brake again. The shock had her breathing hard and starting to shake. She could die out here in the wilderness. Would anyone know or care? She opened the windows, hoping fresh air might steady her nerves.
The breeze was almost warm. What month was this? The damp air fogged up the inside of the windows, and she had to close them again.
She didn’t see a sign of human habitation, but at this hour, everyone sensible was still asleep. The car chugged around tight uphill curves. If she could see past the mist, she feared she would find drop-offs to the sea, or maybe the center of the earth. She checked the gas gauge. She could make another thirty or forty miles before running out. All she had was the cash in her pocket. She prayed she’d reach her destination soon.
“I hope this car is mine, Emma,” she told the cat in the back seat. As usual, Emma snored. The only way she knew the cat’s name was from the tag on her cage. “It brakes and turns on a dime and doesn’t eat gas. It’s a smart car. Maybe that means I’m a smart person.”
There was no radio reception up here. She had only her own voice to listen to. If she’d had music with her, it had disappeared along with her purse and phone. At least she had enough brains left to know what a phone was. And how to drive. So her memory wasn’t completely gone.
Finally, the road leveled off. She thought she saw a mailbox and a driveway. A knot formed in her throat. A normal town, please, with normal people and a gas station and a place to buy coffee. A friendly voice would be nice. She desperately needed friendly and normal right now.
The Hillvale welcome sign hadn’t inspired hope.
The road widened into what appeared to be a parking lot. A single pole lamp illuminated the shifting haze over painted parking spaces and a concrete walkway. Low buildings lined both sides of the road but no lights gleamed. She supposed the road went on, but she pulled into the lot to peer through the mist at what she assumed was the town. Thick moisture concealed signs telling her what the buildings might be.
She shook the little GPS but No Signal was all it displayed. Now was the time to cry. “Emma, we aren’t in Kansas anymore,” she said, trying for a laugh but not achieving it.
She thought she was quoting an old movie. Was that a sign that her mind was returning?
She could ask directions to the address she’d seen in the GPS, but she’d have to wait until the town opened. Now that she’d arrived, she was trembling badly. Maybe whoever she was didn’t cry but went straight to hysterics.
Fog swirled under the one street light. If she wanted to believe in ghosts, she’d see them in the gaping dark holes between the wisps of moisture. A howling dog had her hair standing on end.
She needed coffee. She needed something concrete to pin her to reality. Cats needed to be fed sometime. Did she have cat food in here?
Realizing that in her fugue state, she hadn’t looked in the suitcases in the back seat or in the trunk, she climbed out. She must have been drugged. Nothing else made sense. Why wouldn’t she have looked before this?
The car was an older model Subaru wagon. Had she known that? The back end popped open to reveal a canvas cover over the cargo area. She unlatched it and studied stacks of unmarked boxes in dismay. She didn’t know whether to hope or fear that they were stuffed with cash. Pulling out the first one, she realized it wasn’t even taped. Opening the flap revealed a disorderly collection of books—mostly college texts and nothing useful.
She opened a healthy-sized volume on botany, and in the halogen glare of the parking lot light, read Samantha Moonand a phone number.
Before she could flip open the others, an ethereal figure emerged from the dark mist into the lamplight. Wearing what appeared to be a Smoky Bear hat—how could she recall that image?—a checked flannel shirt, jeans, and run-down suede boots topped with grubby faux fur, the figure appeared androgynous but not dangerous.
“A bit early for the café,” the stranger said in a feminine voice. “But I’ve got keys. Looking for coffee?”
“I would kill for coffee,” she said, then wondered if she might have killed someone. How would she know? She had been hoping someone here could tell her if she had parents, a significant other. . . kids? She didn’t think she had kids, but she didn’t know why.
“Long drive, huh? I’m Mariah.” The stranger approached from across the lot. “I open up for Dinah most days because I’d kill for coffee too.”
How did she respond? The polite thing to do was give a name, but all she had was the one in the textbook. “I’m Sam.” That felt right enough to continue. “I’ve been driving all night. Then my GPS died, and now I’m lost. I figured I’d feed Emma first.”
One of the boxes contained pet supplies, she discovered in relief. She popped open a can, retrieved a water bottle and bowl, and opened the back door. The cat was an over-large, well-furred marmalade.
Mariah peered in the backseat. “You have Emma? I’ve been wondering where she’d got to. You saw Cass then?”
How did she respond to that? Admit she had no memory? The first thing a normal person would do was call the police or a doctor, but what if she was a criminal? Who was Cass and why would she give her a cat?
“Last night,” was all she—Sam—could think to say. She set the food and water on the floor, then let the cat out. Apparently there was already a litter box behind the passenger seat. Someone had thought of everything. It hadn’t been her.
“Now you’re really interesting me,” Mariah said as Sam shut and locked the car door. “And just as a side note, cell phones don’t work here either. The Nulls will tell you that it’s because we’re a valley surrounded by mountains with no cell tower, and the population is too thin to justify satellites.” She led the way across the parking lot to a long, low building with big plate glass windows.
Mariah plugged a key into a bolt. “Techies, geeks, the unevolved.” She flipped a switch inside the door, illuminating a small café with a long counter and half a dozen booths.
It was good to see clearly again. Sam studied the chipped Formica tables and counter, the red cracked vinyl stools, and wondered if she’d traveled back in time.
At least she had a sense of time, that had to be good, right?
Over the counter she caught glimpses of a mural painted between cabinets and behind machinery depicting this same diner in an earlier era—if the clothing on the people was any indication. She studied the faces, hoping to recognize them, but that was foolish. She hadn’t been born at a time when women wore leather vests over lacy maxi dresses and tied their long hair back in beaded headbands. For whatever reason, the mural made her feel vaguely uneasy. The painting was faded and covered with decades of grease, as blurred as if concealed by fog.
Mariah set to filling coffee pots with the ease of experience. “Have a seat. The machinery is slow but the coffee is good.”
“And there is another theory about the lack of cell phone signals?” Sam had picked up on the nuance, so she wasn’t exactly stupid, always good to know. Could she hope that textbooks meant she was educated?
“You don’t know about Hillvale?” With the coffee perking, Mariah flung her hat under the counter. The gesture let down lustrous black hair that she expertly braided as she talked. Sam admired her high cheekbones and brown coloring—and glanced at her own hand to verify she was a pathetic white.
Afraid to admit that she didn’t even know her own name, Sam shook her head. “I was just given an address on Cemetery Road and told to head north. The town welcome sign was a little spooky on top of that address.”
Mariah laughed and took down two plain white mugs. “Since you have her cat, Cassandra must have sent you. She’s the only one who lives out by the cemetery.”