The Dream of Home
by Helen H.
"Are you sure we can't save her, Julio?"
"Don't think so, Harry. This one has seen the end of her days, I'm afraid."
"I'd hoped we could salvage something."
"Everything's rotten. You can see here and here" - a finger pointed out the spots - "where it's the worst."
Admiral Nelson stood pensively, arms folded and head down, watching little sand fleas hop over his shoes. Uppermost in his mind was what he should have done, conflicting now with cruel reality.
"Termites. The downfall for anything built of wood. I was so busy turning the old facility into NIMR that I never found the time to get down here. Still, I should have taken better care of the place, preserved it for historical purposes if nothing else." He sighed and looked up. "At least I've got photographs."
His companion had been squatting in front of the foundation of the house. Now he rose, groaning a little, and brushed sand off his well-worn jeans. A pair of leather gloves went into the pocket of his faded work shirt.
"She was goin' before you even signed the deed for the land, Harry."
"Small consolation. I guess there's no point in your looking inside, then."
A smile broke out on Julio Ortega's face, forcing the wrinkles deeper into the weather-beaten skin around his dark brown eyes. "Probably a good thing if I don't," he said, hands gripping either side of his substantial stomach.
They came around to the front yard and to the visitor's ancient truck, which he had described to the admiral as being almost as old as the house. Ortega reached for the door handle and stopped. He opened his mouth to say something, and then hesitated. Nelson looked at him expectantly.
"What is it, Julio?"
"I know you're going to think I'm crazy." Ortega's lips worked while his eyes focused on the horizon.
Nelson waited, giving the man time to come out with whatever was warring inside him. He looked away, his eyes registering an empty beach, chalk bluffs behind forming the little cove that gave some protection from the perpetual wind. In the distance, the Channel Islands rose above the water. Their highlands were hazy in the late afternoon light. Far outwards a freighter chugged northward, its bulk outlined against the heavy clouds scudding in from the west. The clouds were dark at the bottom, full of rain, obliterating what was left of the afternoon sun. Already there had been flashes of lightning. The wind around the two men rose and fell, disturbing the sand, sending it in little bits and pieces into the turbulent ocean.
Finally, Ortega turned to his friend, raised his arms and spread his hands as if in mocking supplication, "Okay. My wife insisted I mention it, and I would catch heck if I disobeyed Mama. Does the name Daniel Hill mean anything to you, Harry?"
Nelson thought for a moment, and then replied, "I remember coming across that name when I was doing research on the property's history before buying it. As I recall he was a relative of Nicholas Den, the original owner."
Ortega leaned against the door of his truck and got comfortable. "There is a family connection, which is why I know about this place. It was built by Daniel Hill, one of the earliest Americans in Santa Barbara. He had acquired the land from his son-in-law Nicholas Den, the patrón of the rancho your Institute sits on today. I know this because Daniel Hill was a great-something uncle-in-law of mine from his marriage to Rafaela Ortega. My family has been in Santa Barbara for a very long time." There was pride in his voice and in his face now. "Anyway, the story that's been passed down in my family says Daniel Hill wanted to recreate the Massachusetts home he grew up in, and so built a house in the same style for his beautiful wife. Had the furniture brought from back there and everything. Apparently Rafaela Hill spent one night in the place and never returned."
Nelson's eyebrows rose. "And is it recorded somewhere why?"
"Ah, of course," Ortega answered, chuckling. "My Tia Rafaela had no problem telling everybody that the house was haunted."
"I told you it was crazy. Apparently she was adamant that she could hear soft sounds, voices even, carrying on all through the night."
They both stared back at the house. What had once been a fine example of the Federal style of architecture was now gloomy and much neglected. The elements had scoured away almost all of the white exterior paint. Darkened spots indicated where long-vanished balustrades and decorative molding had fallen off. Many of the tall windows, their elaborate pediments rotted away, had plywood covers. The damage the termites had done to all this wasn't obvious at first glance; one had to know what to look for, the dropped windows, cracked panels on the walls, and the holes in the wood around the raised foundation. The whole place seemed to sag, folding in onto itself, held up only by the corners.
Nelson said, "In the condition it's in now, it does resemble one's idea of a haunted house from childhood fairy tales. However, back when it was first built, I surmise what your aunt heard was a new house settling, or more likely, there were gaps around the windows and the wind was having a field day in the place. Just like today," he added, pushing his hair back from his forehead.
Ortega laughed again. "That's the logical scientist talking there. The Californios were a superstitious bunch. The family history is clear that Daniel Hill wasn't too happy about his wife's reaction. He'd spent months building the place, had moved into it himself as it was going up, and then Señora Hill refuses to live in it. Her husband tried to get her to change her mind, but Tia wasn't buying it. A tough Mexican woman putting her foot down over something? That, I can see. So the house" - he indicated it with a jerk of his chin - "became a kind of office for Señor Hill, and he used it until he died in 1865. It stayed empty for a while before one of his sons took it over. I understand even he didn't want to stay in the place at night."
"Superstitions do have a way of perpetuating themselves. Did you know there was someone living in it when I bought the property? The idea of a haunted house, if they even knew about it, didn't stop them."
Nelson related to his visitor about the couple his security people had encountered. The man and woman had been unwilling to leave, and it was only after a visit from the county sheriff that they begrudgingly packed up their belongings into their rattletrap van and drove away.
"It would seem they had no qualms about being here."
"Perhaps the house welcomed them. I knowI speak as if it were living! In my line of work, I find many such. I have come to feel that a home may truly be a living, organic, thing, with a spirit that reflects its care. The adobes that still exist here in Santa Barbara have great histories, and they are well looked after, so their spirits are happy. This house should have a happy spirit, given the location of this place. Nothing between you and the Pacific, that's for sure."
Both men understood the allure of the setting. It was reachable only by an overgrown track at the furthest end of the property, well away from the complex of buildings and laboratories of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research. Tucked away in the little cove the house had nothing but open sea and a half-mile of empty beach as neighbors.
"Daniel Hill certainly did a good job recreating a house that one could find on the Eastern Seaboard in the early 1800s. But in doing so..." Nelson groped for the words. "It doesn't seem right for the spot. It doesn't belong in California. There's something too stiff, too formal. It should be on some tree-lined street in Salem, back where all these ornamental curlicues and furbelows are appreciated."
Ortega nodded vigorously. "That is the same thing I felt when I first saw it, many years ago! Daniel Hill assumed his wife would like her fine New England home, built using his vast wealth. But Rafaela Hill was a child of California, where haciendas took advantage of the land and sprawled all over the place! Who knows, maybe she didn't want to hurt her husband's feelings and just said what she did so she would not have to tell him it was not for her."
Nelson snorted a laugh. "We're letting our imagination run away with us, Julio."
"Perhaps. It has been years since I was last here, and frankly, I was surprised when you called me about the inspection to hear that it was still standing. Maybe I am one of those superstitious types, too. I would not like to live in this house. Its better days, if it ever had any, are gone." He saw Nelson wince, and softened the blow. "More than one hundred years ago this house was built, Harry, built of wood and exposed to the elements constantly. She would have needed attention from the beginning. That it clings to life is a testimony to the care taken in its construction. Maybe Daniel Hill saw only the shell that remained after his wife left, not the home to be loved and so neglected it. Who knows?" He stood upright and stretched slightly. "I'd think twice about taking a look inside. I wouldn't count on it holding up for much longer." A playful look came over his face as he smiled at Nelson. "Besides, if it is embrujada, the fantasma, whatever Tia thought she heard, might get you! I know what you use on a vampire, but what do you use on a Santa Barbara ghost? Throw fish at 'em, maybe!" They shared a laugh while Ortega opened the door of his truck.
"Thanks for coming out, Julio. Send me a bill."
"What bill, my friend? There is no charge for conversation. Come see Maribel and I soon, won't you?"
Ortega got into his truck, waved, and drove away. Nelson watched him go until the engine sounds faded, then turned back and looked at the house again. On the drive down the gravel-strewn road it hadn't appeared too bad, especially with the backdrop of sun and sea. Until one got closer, that is. Then the termite damage became evident, next to the mold creeping up from the foundation and the paint flaking off every surface. The decay had started long before he'd set eyes on the place.
Saying what he had about it being out of place made even more sense the more he studied it. He had visited a few such houses, historical places in New England. Those had been in fine condition, of course, not the sad place in front of him, dreary and oppressive. When had life in this house stopped? Had it ever begun? He wondered what the squatting couple felt as they came across it. Was it only good for a roof over their heads, or had deeper emotions been involved? Had they felt at home? Rafaela Hill had certainly turned against it, according to Julio. Was there ever happiness in this house?
A picket fence had once enclosed the house and its garden. The plants and flowers and most of the fence posts were gone, only a dozen or so looming up drunkenly from amongst the ice plant and sand. White paint clung stubbornly to the wooden stakes in spots, a mocking salute to the American dream.
A frisson of loneliness welled up in him and he looked to the ground.A piece of tin was at his feet, and he flicked it over with the toe of his shoe. It was an old sign, crusty now with saltwater and flecked with rust. He grinned at the warning: 'Danger! No Trespassing!' That had not stopped someone from living here, free of discovery for some time since the property was on a remote part of the Institute, supposedly safe.
"But not safe from neglect," said Nelson, guilt still finding a purchase in his mind. His words disappeared into the wind just as a series of moans erupted around him. The sounds lasted for a few seconds and then faded away.
He stiffened and blinked. The wind was stronger now, moving against him, pushing at him and lifting the ends of his jacket. It made it impossible to isolate what he'd heard. He looked around for a possible cause, his eyes settling on the mounds of sand trailing out from the base of the bluff. There were little bunches of flowers all along the bases but the tops were cleaned and flattened, moved constantly by wind and spray. The image connected. He recalled the studies he'd read that related how sound waves forming over wet and dry sand could create measurable groans and even growls.
"That's what Rafaela Ortega heard - the whistling of the wind across all this sand! Mystery solved," Nelson added, for no one's benefit but his own. He wished that he could have explained it to her and her husband. It may have made a great difference. They could have lived in the house in peace. The house would have received the care it needed.
He felt a need to see the inside.
He entered through the once imposing doorway into a room stretching the entire width of the house. A large dining table minus its legs leaned against a faded wall. Heavy water stains marred the peeling wallpaper. There were clumps of rotting fabric, curtains most likely, on the floors underneath the windows. They had once been red velvet. Now they were faded pink, ravaged by vermin and age. The interior had a musty smell, a combination of vanished cooking, mold, and that peculiar scent that houses near saltwater always have.
Many of the windows in the room had plywood nailed across their bottom half. Doing so hadn't stopped the wind completely and dust balls skittered across the tired looking floor. He moved over to the closest window and pulled on it. It moved up and down in the frame, squealing all the while.
"As I thought. When the wind was blowing you could have heard this all over the house." He looked about him admiring the once pristine architectural splendor. "It would be a shame for all this effort to be lost. It needs to be salvaged and preserved. It can't be too late yet." He spoke to himself but his voice seemed to echo throughout the empty rooms.
Nelson sighed as a bout of melancholy assailed him again. Floorboards protesting with every step, he walked through the front parlor to another room on the left side of the house. In here was an old sofa, its horsehair stuffing bursting out from the arms. All that was left of the carpet was faded tufts where the rug had been torn from the nails holding it down. It was a small space, Daniel Hill's own study, perhaps. Nelson could almost see the man, studying a floor plan, watching as the foundation went in, and then the floors, the walls. Waiting for a piece of home to appear. And all the time the ocean as constant witness to progress. This room had the best view on the ground floor. Had he been a lover of the sea, wanting to enjoy it and keep it close? Nelson knew he often experienced that himself. Perhaps Daniel Hill had felt the same. A feeling of empathy arose, and Nelson found himself wishing he could have known him and talked with him about his life. Nelson could only hope that the care lavished on building this house had brought Daniel Hill a great sense of satisfaction even if his wife had not felt the same. He had experienced the same emotion when realizing his own dreams and knew it took determination to keep pushing a project forward. Daniel must have been a man of great passion and drive.
The sound reverberated around him like a whispered acknowledgment. He stared around the room again. The windows had moved in their frames. It was the only explanation.
A blustery gust thumping against the front door broke the spell. He shook his head, clearing his thoughts. He was becoming far too fanciful. What he'd said to Julio earlier was just as true now. Whatever Rafaela Hill's reason for rejecting living here, there could be nothing supernatural about it. Of that he was very sure.
He returned to his contemplation of his surroundings. His thoughts went back to earlier times, picturing this room as it might have been in its heyday. A visitor would have found Daniel Hill in his chair, a soft Persian carpet under his feet, a glass of dark liquid on the nearby table and his eyes no doubt enjoying the breathtaking view. Before entering the private study the guest may have walked past a petite grand piano holding court, its top covered with portraits of the family and expensive bric-a-brac, the little touches every house in New England boasted.
Long-forgotten sensory experiences reformed: in his mind, there was his mother, engrossed in a Chopin polonaise at her piano, the autumn light filtering through windows as tall as these. Outside, gulls cackle and swoop, the birds drawn away from the backwaters of Boston Harbor. Suddenly it was real again. If his family had had their way, it would have been him living in such a house. Harriman Nelson had other plans, however, pursuing them with a single mindedness that caused more than one family disagreement. Not the kinds of disagreement Rafaela Hill had had with her husband, but ones just as final.
Someone had placed a chair by the window. Nelson used his handkerchief to dust it off and sat down. The ocean's constant roar receded as he settled in the chair. It became quiet and still. A passing cloud cut off the sun. The room darkened in an instant.
His eyes swept up and down the shore, and settled on the waterline. As he watched the foamy bubbles of saltwater lap up onto the beach, pop, and run back again, his eyes slowly closed. The air in the room became sheltering, peaceful, welcoming. Comforting. His head slowly went backwards until it rested on the top rail of the chair.
A voice too distant to be disturbing crept into his mind. The words were indistinguishable, just a whisper but all the same he understood their meaning.
Abandoned… empty and forgotten. Not fair… stay… don't go….
A brief, rending clap of thunder rang out, rattling the windows and forcing him awake. Nelson opened his eyes and rubbed his forehead. He had been dreaming dreams of nonsense. It shook him that he remembered the words so clearly. He checked his watch and swore. He had a meeting coming up with Lee and Chip to go over the weekly sitrep in ten minutes.
A low rumble filled the air. The sky outside was now gray and foam whipped off the tops of the waves that thudded onto the sand mere yards away. The temperature had certainly dropped, and through the thin windbreaker he felt chilled. It would rain soon.
In answer to his clairvoyant thoughts there came the unmistakable plop of raindrops on the windows. Streaks of water began making dirty rivulets on the glass. Soon enough the window would be cleaner and the view better. For one unnerving moment, he felt as if the house was holding him there, wanting him to see everything in its former glory one last time. The mood was quickly broken as the rain stopped abruptly.
Rising up from the chair, he walked out of the room and made for the front door, checking his watch again. It was past time to leave.
The sighing erupted again. It was louder this time, the sound creeping around the walls and under the doors. Nelson waved a hand through his hair, angered at himself. To let his imagination run away with him like this was unacceptable. He needed to be out of this place.
Just then, a thud sounded out overhead, as if someone had jumped up and down on the floor. Nelson stood still, but the noise wasn't repeated. Was there someone here, an intruder? Late as he was, he had to investigate.He spun on his heel and looked down the hallway. A narrow staircase led upwards. The banister was broken in spots. Only by leaning against the wall could he hope to make his way to the second floor, but there was no thought of not trying.
The stairs gave slightly under his shoes as he started upward, skirting the tiny pools of water on the steps from holes in the no longer watertight ceiling. He reached the landing. The doorway was only a couple of feet away and he could see clearly into the room.
The source of the thump was a table, on its side underneath a window open to the wind. Had a sharp breeze caught it, hard enough to tipit over? It looked heavy.
Tentatively, Nelson started forward. He wanted to assure himself that nature's elements had been the only culprit for this moving furniture but as he moved forward he found himself falling as the floor collapsed beneath him.
Throwing his arms toward the doorframe, he got a couple of fingers on it, but everything was tilting too much. With a profound curse and flaying arms, he followed the debris down to the lower level and hit hard on his left leg, then rolled heavily onto his back and slammed his head into the floor.
In few moments of hazed consciousness, he again heard a whispered voice, this time more demanding of him. "Now stay!" Then even that was gone.
He woke up to the pain throbbing in his leg.
For a panicked moment, Nelson thought he was blind. Just as quickly, he realized specks of wood and plaster were covering his eyes. He gave a quick shake, and they tumbled over the sides of his face. The shake cleared his head. He remembered where he was, remembered the floor giving way. Take stock, he told himself firmly. Don't move yet.
He had fallen into the study. The sofa sat a few feet to his left. That was a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view; he realized he might have landed on what was left of the cushions or right across the wooden back, breaking more than what felt like a badly bruised leg.
Lying there, trying to get his wits about him, he heard another noise and looked up. Nelson was shocked back into immobility.
Straight above was the table, teetering on what was left of the ceiling, balanced only on some split wood laths. If the wood went, the table would land right on top of him. As his mind took this in, a flash of light followed a few seconds later by a loud clap of thunder roared through the house, shaking it. The table jumped another inch towards the edge.
He needed to get up. Now.
Sputtering the dust and dirt out of his lips, he tasted blood. The fog in his brain slowly cleared and his mind registered something else - his arms weren't moving. He tried to raise his right arm and heard the side of ripping fabric. Turning his head, Nelson saw that he was pinned to the floor by one of the ceiling joists. It had cantilevered downwards and came to rest across his shoulder, trapping the arm and the fabric of his jacket underneath it. His entire left side was buried under jagged pieces of wood and plaster. There was throbbing coming from around his knee. He tested the leg and pain shot upwards, leaving him gasping.
Something trickled into his eye. A cut on his forehead had started bleeding. He could also feel little stings all over his face.
The thunder struck again. The shaking raised another cloud of dust, but thankfully the table did not move. Nor could he. He was good and truly trapped. And the storm's beginnings were getting louder. And closer.
"Chip, it is sit rep day, right? The admiral never mentioned canceling." Lee Crane got up from his chair in the conference room and looked out the window, noting the clouds gathering for another storm. "Did he have something to do before this?"
"Dunno. Let me ask Angie." Chip Morton got up and walked over to the telephone at the head of the conference table. Dialing quickly, he held a conversation with the admiral's secretary.
"He had a meeting down at the old beach house at 1600? You're sure it was that time? Yeah, sorry, I know you're sure, Ang. Home inspector ... got it. I guess that could have taken a while. Thanks." Lee came over to stand beside him while he dialed another number. "Hi, McGarrity, it's Commander Morton. Any visitors on board at the moment?" Muted sounds came from the receiver and then Chip said, "Okay, thanks."
Chip put the phone down slowly.
"You heard," he said, turning to Lee. "Angie said he had an appointment at 1600 with a friend of his who does home inspections. They were going to meet at the old house down on the south beach. McGarrity says the guy dropped off his visitor badge at Pass and ID about 20 minutes ago."
Lee picked up his briefcase. "I remember him mentioning having work done on the old place. C'mon, we'll drive down. Either we'll meet him coming up or we can talk down there. Nothing much going on this week, anyway."
They took Lee's car. As they turned off the paved road and onto the dirt track leading down to the beach, Chip spoke abruptly.
"You know, this old house gave me the creeps the first time I saw it. I can't imagine why the admiral wants to try to do anything with it."
"There's a couple of reasons, I think. It looks like something out of New England history. Probably reminds him of where he grew up."
"I can usually find better ways to remember my childhood."
Lee laughed before saying, "Second, it is beachfront, and I mean beachfront. Even the apartment on Mainside isn't as close. That's reason enough right there. It's the ocean, Chip. He never wants to get too far away."
Chip looked impressed. "You're quite the philosopher, my friend."
"Just a good judge of character in this case."
There was a car coming.
Aside from an ominous creak here and there from above him and the flutter of dust nothing had changed. The table still lay on its raft of wood and cracked plaster. There hadn't been any thunder in the last few minutes. The pain now was just a dull throbbing, no longer raging up and down his leg. He was busy wiggling the fingers on his right hand, trying to get the feeling back. Even if he somehow worked the arm free he couldn't pull at the joist pinning him down; if the end holding up the ceiling fell, so would the table.
"Hurry up, whoever you are," he whispered.
"Well, his car's here, so he's still here. Admiral!" Lee called out. "Admiral! Damn, it is going to rain buckets any minute. Careful, Chip, these steps don't look too sturdy." Lee's weight made the decaying boards creak ominously and he looked at the building with dismay. "I wouldn't think there's much left to salvage from this place!"
They started forward only to be stopped by shouting.
"Careful, Lee! Any extra vibration and the rest of the ceiling might collapse!"
Lee left Chip standing in the open entrance and tiptoed towards the room beyond the front parlor. He was shocked by what he saw; Admiral Nelson half buried underneath sheets of plaster and broken wood pieces. The top of the admiral's head was facing the doorway. There was blood on Nelson's forehead, and it was seeping out from around the pieces down by his left leg, mixed in with dust and debris.
Sinking down to his hands and knees, Lee crawled over and positioned himself just to Nelson's side. Now he could see the long cut in the admiral's forehead and the little cuts peppering his face. He felt for a pulse. It was steady under his hand. He blew a deep heart-felt breath.
Nelson's eyes rolled upward. Lee was gratified to see them register his face and know it.
"Sorry... Lee... can't move. Look up."
Lee did, and the sight chilled him. He motioned to Chip, and he crawled over and joined him at the admiral's side.
Both men were immediately aware of the danger and quickly their training took over as they assessed the safest rescue plan. It soon became apparent that there were no safe options open to them.
"You've got to grab him at the shoulders and pull straight out," Crane decided.
"Lee... that leg..."
"I know, Chip, but it's the only way. We waste time throwing the stuff off and the rest of the ceiling will have a chance to come down." Lee sat back on his haunches. "Here's what we'll do. You grab hold of his shoulders. I'm going to push up on this beam. When I push it to the side you pull fast. We'll go on three. Admiral, you ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be, lad. Do what you need to do."
Lee pivoted around and prepared to put his hands on the beam, getting out of Chip's way. Chip stood up, then bent over and grabbed Nelson's shoulders underneath the jacket, taking a firm grip. Nelson winced and muttered.
"Sorry, sir! But if I don't have hold of you, you're not going anywhere."
"I understand completely, Chip. No need to apologize."
Lee told hold of the beam. "Ready? One... two... three!"
Lee pushed, Chip hauled backwards and the admiral slid out, yelping as he went. The table, weak supports slipping away, cracked through the last bit of splintered wood. A cloud of debris rose up as the table did a neat head over heels and ended up face down on the spot where Nelson had been only seconds before. What was left of the ceiling made ominous noises, but it stayed in place as the two men pulled Nelson into the front parlor.
Waving the dust away, Lee said, "Chip - get back and get an ambulance!"
"I'm on my way."
Gravel showered the porch as Chip started the car and peeled up the driveway, tires spinning in protest.
Lee knelt down again and began throwing the pieces of wood and plaster aside, looking Nelson over quickly. The blood oozing from the nasty gash on his head had mostly stopped. There were no bones sticking out of his leg, but the skin around the knee was badly torn up and bleeding heavily.
Nelson opened his eyes, gritting his teeth. "Did… you get the number of that truck…"
Lee grinned and busied himself with pushing away more of the old plaster. "Afraid it was a hit and run, sir. I've sent Chip for an ambulance. No, don't try to sit up," he admonished. "That leg might be broken, I don't know. You're also going to have bruises from top to bottom, Admiral."
"You don't... have to sound all happy about it, you know."
"Not at all, sir," Lee said, realizing the look on his face had betrayed him. "Just thinking Jamie's in for a shock that it's you and not me. You are not likely to get 'the lecture.'" He looked up at the gaping hole in the ceiling. "What were you doing upstairs? This place is a disaster just waiting to happen, sir."
"I'm trying to remember the circumstances. Head's a bit muddled, think I was unconscious for a few minutes. Must have decided to take a look… bad idea, obviously." Nelson made a noise deep down in his throat. "Floor collapsed and I went with it, from the looks of it." He groaned, louder this time. "Damn, that leg hurts like the blazes."
The shock was wearing off, and Nelson's color was getting greyer. Lee was very glad that help was only a few minutes away.
"Sir, please, stop squirming," Lee said as Nelson let out another hiss of pain. "The ambulance will be here any minute."
Nelson's brow furrowed and he let out a frustrated growl. "Just trying to figure out what happened… there was something about the second floor. Can't remember." Nelson raised his head, careful not to move too much. "What a mess. I really did want to try to save this place. It shouldn't have been allowed to get to this state! The Institute's taken all my energy and I've neglected what was once a beautiful piece of architecture. There ought to be a way, Lee."
"You could tryif you really feel it's worth it, Admiral, but it would take a lot of work. Maybe the old place is not quite ready to give out. It certainly wanted to make sure you stuck around," he said, laughing. Concentrated on the admiral's injured leg he didn't see the startled reaction his statement had made on Nelson.
"Now stay," Nelson murmured as vehicle sounds outside alerted Lee to look out the window.
Lee rose up as he heard the squeal of a siren. "Don't think about it now, Admiral. Lucky we're so close to the base. They'll have you picked up in no time."
"If that damned silly intern is along for the ride you can leave me right here," Nelson grumbled.
Lee relaxed. The admiral would be all right.
The siren died off as the ambulance pulled up in front. Doors slammed and Chip was the first one inside, followed by two men in white coats.
"Ah, Admiral Nelson! Had ourselves a little accident, did we?"
"Your powers of observation are mind boggling, Dr. Kelly," Nelson growled. "Owwww!"
The doctor finished his quick examination. "Shoulders and arms look okay, but that knee is going to need sewing up and obviously we're going to need some x-rays. And boy, are you going to be black and blue all over. Dr. Jamieson is not going to be happy about this at all."
Lee saw Nelson's eyes widen and his mouth open. He said hurriedly, "He also told me he'd been knocked out."
"Okay, we'll save that for the examining room." Dr. Kelly nodded decisively. "We'll get you out of here as painlessly as we can."
Chip and Lee helped the driver lift Nelson onto the stretcher, mindful of his injuries. They carefully negotiated the steps and got Nelson into the back of the ambulance. As Lee settled himself, Nelson gripped his arm.
"No sirens, Lee. I don't want this trip advertised."
"You heard, everybody. I'll ride back with him, Chip, you can follow."
"Right, Lee. See you at the hospital."
Just after both vehicles had disappeared around the bend, there came one last flash followed by a clap of thunder loud enough to be heard to Isla Vista. The lightning bolt struck a corner of the roof and sparked its way inside. The ensuing tendrils of fire encountered the peeling strips of wallpaper. Slowly, inexorably, the flames found more and more fuel.
A keening started on the ground floor and pushed up the stairs. It seemed to flow from room to room, the sound getting louder and louder as the old wood surrendered.
The house was burning fiercely by the time the Institute's Fire Department arrived, alerted by the clouds of smoke. Another quick shower had delayed only the inevitable; there was nothing to save. They stayed for a while, damping down hot spots, tossing piles of timbers around and burying a lot of it under the sand. A clean-up crew would come to take care of the rest.
The few remaining fence posts had been knocked over in the rush to get the hoses out. One of the firemen made a point of picking up a couple and setting them upright in a mocking salute to what had been. His colleagues laughed. Soon, they were gone.
There were no sounds now. There never would be again.
Who has not felt how sadly sweet The dream of home, the dream of home, Steals o'er the heart, too soon to fleet, When far o'er sea or land we roam?
Thomas Moore, The Dream of Home, Stanza 1
Author's Note: Daniel Hill and Nicholas Den were real people, pioneer settlers in the Santa Barbara area with Spanish land grants totaling thousands of acres. At one time they owned the land, but not the church buildings, of Mission Santa Barbara.