Refugees by Kim Fielding

1





Walter Clark had hoped the sight of the ocean wouldn’t bother him. This was the Pacific, after all, not the same body of water he’d seen tinged red with the blood of his friends and comrades off the Normandy beach. But as soon as he turned south onto the Oregon Coast Highway and saw the vast expanse of roiling gray water, his heart sped and his breathing shallowed. He could hear the blasts of artillery and the screams of the wounded, could smell the metal tang of death mixed with the salt of the sea.

This was a mistake. He should have stayed inland.

Somehow he made it over the high Yaquina Bay Bridge without crashing his old Ford, and he was even able to continue a few miles farther south before his hands shook so violently he could barely control the wheel. Instead of the road before him, he saw red sand, gray landing craft, and green-clad men. When he found himself swerving to avoid an iron hedgehog that had existed six years earlier and five thousand miles away, he pulled to the side of the highway and tried to regain control.

Bitter tears of anger and frustration stung his eyes and ran down his cheeks, but he refused to acknowledge them by wiping them away.

He might have stayed there for hours, but the idling car hiccoughed impatiently. It was a ’37, a relic of prewar days, and although it had conveyed him all the way from Chicago, it could be temperamental. The last thing he wanted was to be stranded here, with the waves pounding like mortar shells so very close by. He carefully pulled back onto the road and drove slowly, like a nearsighted old man, his hands clenched painfully on the wheel.

He had no idea how much time passed before he spied a road leading inland through the trees. A sign said Kiteeshaa. Walter didn’t know what that meant but turned left anyway. Wherever the asphalt led, it was away from the ocean, and that was what he needed.

As it turned out, Kiteeshaa was a town. Or more accurately, a little hamlet with a population of 178, according to the welcome sign. The village was four or five miles inland and spread across a flat meadow between steep, tree-covered hills. A handful of businesses lined the main street, and beyond that, earth-toned bungalows and moss-roofed little ranch-style houses clustered in the valley and climbed the bases of the slopes.

Walter parked in the small gravel lot in front of the Kitee Café. He got out of the car, stretched, and spent several moments looking around. He heard faint voices—children laughing—but saw nobody. A sense of peace settled on him like a cooling mist, making his shoulders loosen and his lungs work more smoothly. He leaned against the Ford and inhaled deeply, enjoying the scents of pine and damp as well as the sight of the green hills. Kiteeshaa felt a world away from Chicago, where he’d been born and raised.

He’d enjoyed the excitement and bustle of the city… before. But when he’d returned from war, the tall buildings had oppressed him and the clatter of the L and other traffic had startled him. His family had become strangers. For a few years, he’d held out hope that eventually he’d do what was expected of him: settle back into the family business, find a girl and marry, buy a little house in a newly built suburb, have children. Other soldiers he knew had managed that much. But five years after returning from Europe, he still didn’t feel at home. His parents had looked relieved when he’d thrown a duffel bag into the back of his car after deciding that a change of scenery was better than drinking himself to death.

He felt disappointed when he saw that the Kitee Motor Court Inn, next door to the cafe, appeared to be out of business. Although the lot between the neat little buildings was empty, a faded sign read No Vacancy. He would have liked to stay here for a few days, but since that was impossible, at least he could eat something. He was hungry, and a big Open sign hung in the café’s front window.

Before he had a chance to go inside, a man headed toward him from the motor court office. There was nothing remarkable about the man’s khaki trousers or gray plaid shirt, but Walter had the immediate impression that he was a foreigner. Maybe because of his sand-colored curls—which would have earned ridicule from Walter’s crew-cut brothers in Chicago—or maybe the slight upward tilt of his widely set eyes. Perhaps it was the way he moved his lanky body, with long, smooth, catlike strides instead of the jerky, businesslike stomps Walter saw back home.

As the man neared, Walter tried to concentrate on the puzzle of his strangeness rather than the beauty of his face.

“Are you lost?” asked the man when he drew close. Sure enough, he had a faint accent Walter couldn’t place. He wore a friendly smile, but his sharp gaze scrutinized.