David was the first. At least he was the first that I noticed. We were on vacation. The family. My wife, my son, his girlfriend, Annabelle, and two of his friends, Noah and Weston. I had gotten up early. I always got up early on vacation. I went into town. We were staying at a beach house in a little town called Cayucos just above Morro Bay, just off Highway One, and just about forgotten, although the obnoxious beachfront rebuilds that have destroyed most of the California coast were beginning to replace the charming little beach cottages that had made this town a special relic of a simpler time. Replacement. That may be the theme here. Or relics. Or simple times.
Everyone is asleep, and I go into town to get coffee for my wife and for myself, and I have a quiet morning by the beach. And there he is, at the little shitty coffee and smoothie place that was the closest you could come to an espresso this side of San Luis Obispo. My friend, one of my closest friends, David, with an espresso in hand and about to sit down. But he was 75 years old, broken and ruined, and could not really have been my friend David at all. I took a picture, I sent it to David. A joke. What are you doing in Cayucos? I got no answer. But David was not someone to check his email often.
And that was that, we went on about our vacation. The fact that I had seen someone who looked so much like one of my closest friends faded into the washed out oblivion of a week at the beach. Until my wife mentioned that she had seen Judy.
The third day into the vacation, I had gone into San Luis Obispo to find decent coffee and to work on a short story, while the rest of our party went to San Simeon to see how the extremely rich people used to live back in the day.
We were discussing the events of the day that evening when my wife said, “And standing in line, to take the tour, was a woman who looked just like your niece, Judy. Although she seemed a lot older. I guess we haven’t seen Judy in a long time.”
OK, duly noted. A friend once told me that once you pass 50, everyone in the world becomes a type, because they’re only 15 types in the world, and so you are constantly thinking that you see someone that you already know. Point taken; we’re all getting old, horizons collapse, I get it. But this was something different. It just had that feeling, the way that some things do, you know? And then when our son, who is 20, and who has the entire world and the bulk of his future open before him, said that he had seen his old girlfriend, Melena, walking down the street in Cambria, I started to get a little nervous. About what, I can’t tell you. I don’t honestly believe in body-snatchers, although I love the movies, or in doppelgängers, or ghosts or visions or, fuck me, parallel dimensions, although I’ve written about all of these things. I believe that life is what it is and then it ends. And that’s that.
Still, as a wise man once said to me, if you haven’t had a drink, and three people in a row tell you you’re drunk, lie down. “Did she seem older?” I asked.
“Yeah, weirdly, she did.”
Something was going on here. Still, and this is the sort of thing I think about at four in the morning when I can’t sleep and nothing looks good or even possible, still, so what. We were 207 miles from Los Angeles and seeing people who looked like someone who lived in Los Angeles, someone who lived in Turlock and someone who was going to school in Oregon. And that was weird, but it didn’t mean that the world was coming to an end. Then Weston disappeared.
Here’s what happened. Fifth day of the vacation. I was now a fixture at the good coffee place in San Luis Obispo. I would get up at six, drive the 20 some miles, have my coffee there and be home before anyone else woke up. And that’s what I did. The kids were sleeping on foldout beds in the living room. When I got back, everyone was still asleep. One by one, they rolled out. Our son and his girlfriend down to the beach, my wife to her reheated latte, and Noah, my son’s friend, to sneak outside and smoke a joint he thought we wouldn’t notice. He did this and then came back inside to put his dirty clothes on. My wife and I were on the deck. He came out of the living room and asked, “Where’s Weston?”
And no one knew. No one had seen him since the night before. They had all been very high, stumbled up from the beach, and crashed. “I remember him asking me where his beach shoes were,” my wife said. “Maybe he was planning on going for a walk this morning.”
But his beach shoes were under a chair on the deck and Weston was nowhere. When he didn’t come home that night, we called his parents and, when no one answered on any of their phones, we called the police. “These things happen,” the officer who answered the phone said to me. “These things happen, all the time.” It struck me as a rather odd way to respond to a report of a missing young man, but there was something in the finality of her delivery that left me unable to respond in any way except to say, “Yes, but I though you should know all the same.”
There was nothing else to do after that but to wait. And then after that, there was really nothing else to do but go back home. Weston was gone; his parents weren’t answering by phone, by text or by email. The police had grudgingly said that they were looking into it and the same officer I’d spoken to already reminded me again that, “These things happen.” In addition to that, we had only rented the house for a week, and the next tenants would be moving in the following morning. We thought briefly about getting a hotel room in San Luis Obispo; all the rooms by the beach were gone this close to the Fourth of July. We could’ve sent the other kids home on the train. But what would we have done up there? Waited. It seemed better to knock on Weston’s parents’ door and tell them in person. In retrospect, this all seems a bit crazy, but things had already gone completely crazy; we just hadn’t noticed it yet.
Noah and Annabelle disappeared at a gas station bathroom in Buellton. It’s a little more complicated than that, and I should probably go into a bit more detail here. We took the 101 from San Luis Obispo south. We had gone through Shell and Pismo, and were headed down the Gaviota Pass, when Annabelle, in the backseat, said, “Jesus.” No one had spoken in almost an hour. We were all worried about Weston, shell-shocked, tired, and, to tell the truth, scared. Her voice cut through the ringing silence of the car. Somehow we all knew to look to our left. There was a Prius wagon coming up next to us. Driving it was Noah, which was exceptional both because he was in the backseat with Annabelle and because Noah didn’t know how to drive. This Noah was 45 or 50, his still long hair was receding, and his face had gotten craggy with age. Sitting next to him, a still attractive woman in her late 40s, was Annabelle.
Our own son’s exclamation of “holy fuck” pretty much spoke for all of us. There was nothing else to say. “Holy fuck,” indeed.
We got off at a gas station in Buellton, and that’s where Noah and Annabelle disappeared. They went to the bathroom, their respective bathrooms, and never came back. Honestly, at that point, we weren’t even surprised. We waited for four hours all the same. We had pea soup at Anderson’s. We waited for another hour. It was my wife who finally said, “I think we’d better go home.”
And so we did. Go home, I mean. A two hour drive. A lot of traffic. No more doppelgangers. Nothing. We didn’t say a word on the drive. We all knew what was going to happen. And it happened. I mean, I tried to keep it from happening. I welcomed every traffic jam, and once we were off the freeway, every red light. But sooner or later, it was going to be over. Sooner or later, we were going to pull into our driveway, and I would see my son, older, sadder, taking out the trash. I would see my wife, an old woman now, in the garden. And I would see myself, an old man, sitting at the kitchen table, writing this story.