A STORM OF INFINITE BEAUTY
By Julianne MacLean
Lake Union Publishing
Text copyright © 2023 by Julianne MacLean Publishing Inc.
Release date: September 12, 2023
From the bestselling author of Beyond the Moonlit Sea comes an atmospheric tale of how one woman’s search for the truth uncovers long-hidden secrets and rocks the very foundation of her world.
March 27, 1964
Twenty-three minutes before the earthquake struck, Valerie McCarthy was on her way to deliver a letter. She had poured all her heart and soul into it, aired all her youthful, pent-up passions and dreams. Her pen had flown across the page impetuously, expressing her deepest, most ardent desires. She was determined to try, one last time, to reach for the life she truly wanted.
The weather was crisp and cold that Good Friday evening, and the world felt strangely new to her. Gloomy gray clouds veiled the sky, yet the snowcapped mountains in the distance were cast in a heavenly light. An odd stillness hung in the air. Valerie’s breath floated lightly in visible puffs as she pushed her baby carriage south along McKinley Street toward the city dock where the SS Chena was unloading supplies. Valerie would meet the ship and place her letter into the proper hands—the hands of someone she could trust.
Quickening her pace, she pushed Cameron over bumpy patches of ice that caused the carriage wheels to rattle in the hush of the evening, but her sweet angel slept soundly and didn’t fuss.
Finally, she arrived at the corner of Alaska Avenue in the center of town and turned toward the waterfront. She made her way onto the earthen causeway that led to the dock, toward the noisy roar of delivery trucks coming and going, horns honking, and men shouting in the distance. A group of young boys ran past her in a race to watch the unloading of supplies—a thrilling spectacle in a town with few televisions.
Valerie walked briskly. Her nose was running, but she had no tissues, so she sniffed and wiped the back of her wrist across her upper lip. She pushed Cameron past the Village Morgue Bar. A few men stood in the doorway, arguing good naturedly about something. Valerie kept moving, then glanced toward the small boat harbor, where her friend Jeremy sat casually on the shiny front bumper of a parked car—talking to Angie.
Valerie slowed. For a few tense seconds, she watched and wondered, with more than a little concern, what they were discussing. Then Jeremy stood and pulled Angie into his arms. Valerie sucked in a breath at the sight of their embrace because Angie was a married woman, and this was not a good situation. They both knew it.
But Valerie didn’t have time for this. Not today. Not when she was on a mission of her own. Forcing herself to look away, she pushed her carriage and started off again. She would see Angie the next day and speak to her then.
At last, Valerie arrived at the end of the dock, where longshoremen were unloading cargo from the ten-thousand-ton supply ship. Wooden pallets were lifted out of the hold on ropes and pulleys.
A steady stream of workers carried smaller crates down the sloping gangplank.
The Chena’s cook stood at the rail, tossing oranges to local boys with their hands in the air.
Valerie removed her woolen hat and waved at him. “Hello! Excuse me! Are you Marcus?”
“I am!” he replied.
“I’m Valerie, a friend of Jeremy’s. I have a favor to ask.”
He pointed at the gangplank and walked the length of the deck to meet her. She waited for him to disembark.
“It’s nice to meet you, Valerie,” he said amiably as he stepped onto the dock and bent over the baby carriage. “And who is this little person?”
Valerie peeled back the blanket. “This is Cameron. He’s three days old today. Sleeping soundly, as you can see.”
“My word. That’s a good-lookin’ boy if I ever saw one. Congratulations.”
Valerie tucked the blanket back around Cameron’s ears.
“What can I do for you?” Marcus asked, straightening.
She removed her mittens, reached into her pocket for the letter, and held it out. “Could you post this for me, wherever you end up next? There should be enough stamps on the envelope to cover it.”
Marcus stared at the letter for a few seconds. “Is there something wrong with the post office in Valdez?”
Valerie continued to hold the letter out. “In a way, yes, but it’s a long story, and if you want to hear it, we’ll be here all day.”
He narrowed his eyes a little as he studied her, then accepted the letter and read the address on the envelope. “Wolfville, Nova Scotia.”
Valerie gestured toward Cameron. “I have news to share with a friend back home.”
Marcus nodded knowingly, slid the letter into his breast pocket, and patted it three times. “Have no fear. I will ensure its safe delivery.”
She let out a breath of relief. “Thank you. Jeremy said you’d be helpful. I appreciate it very much.” She pulled her mittens back on and moved to turn the baby carriage around. “I don’t want to take up any more of your time. It’s quite busy here.” A noisy forklift drove past.
“Have a good weekend,” Marcus said as he turned and strode back up the gangplank.
With a heart full of hope, Valerie pushed Cameron away from the Chena. She smiled up at a young father who carried his daughter on his shoulders and wondered what her own future might look like, now that her letter was on its way home. Her life, and Cameron’s, might be quite different in a month or two.
When the small boat harbor came into view again, Valerie slowed her pace to look for Angie and Jeremy, but they had gone. Where, she had no idea, and she couldn’t help but worry about what they were up to. Nevertheless, she continued walking and stepped onto the causeway, telling herself that it wasn’t her problem to solve. Jeremy and Angie were adults. She had Cameron to care for now, and all she wanted was to leave the clatter and commotion of the busy Valdez waterfront and take him home to the peaceful serenity of Wilderness Lodge.
She had just begun to dream about the rocking chair in front of the fire when a flock of seabirds swarmed into town from the cannery. They darted wildly in all directions over her head. Then a dog began to bark a few blocks away, and another galloped past her at full speed in the direction of the mountains. Valerie looked up at the sky. Was a storm rolling in?
Suddenly the ground began to shake. It shuddered like a jackhammer and shook every bone in her body. A thunderous roar from deep inside the earth drowned out the commotion on the docks behind her. As she clung to the handle of the baby carriage, her insides flared with alarm.
The shaking intensified, and the ground beneath her rolled a full foot in one direction, then two feet in another. Valerie could barely keep her balance.
“It’s the Russians! We’re being bombed!” a woman shouted from the sidewalk. She staggered into the center of the street while parked cars bounced up and down, rolled, and crashed into one another.
The boys who had caught the oranges on the dock dashed past Valerie and shouted, “It’s an earthquake! Run!”
They were heading inland, away from the waterfront, so she followed as fast as she could, pushing Cameron in the unwieldy carriage over bumpy slabs of ice while the earth rolled like giant waves in the ocean. The swells made their way up the street, lifting houses and cars on rising crests, then dropping them into the troughs.
One of the boys stopped and looked back at the dock, his eyes wide with terror. Valerie stopped and turned as well.
The Chena was bobbing up and down like a plastic toy, its shrill horn blaring. The warehouses on the dock creaked and groaned. Within seconds, they began to break apart. Roofs caved in, and the buildings crumpled. Before Valerie could comprehend what was happening, the entire dock gave way and collapsed into the sea, taking everything with it—cars, trucks, buildings, and people. All of it sank into the bay and disappeared before Valerie’s horror-struck eyes.
She knew she had to run but struggled to keep her footing as the road slanted to one side. Glass exploded out of twisting, contorting buildings, and telephone poles swayed back and forth like windshield wipers. Utility lines snapped and whipped across the pavement. The earth heaved and bellowed. Cameron began to cry.
A huge crack opened in the road in front of Valerie, and dirty black water jetted out like a fire hose. She pulled Cameron back, but the fissure closed as quickly as it had opened. She didn’t know whether to go forward or back, but when she turned to look at the waterfront, the Chena’s stern was rising on a huge wave until the ship was nearly vertical. She blinked with fright, paralyzed by the sight of the large brass propeller spinning slowly in the air. She stood a few seconds, dazed, until the 440-foot cargo ship came crashing down thunderously on whatever was left of the dock and the people flailing about among the wreckage in the churning waters. She had never seen anything like it, and she choked back a cry of despair.
The Chena, now adrift and out of control, was moving on its side at a terrifying speed toward shore, plowing through small boats and debris. It generated an enormous wave that began to rush into town. Valerie stood paralyzed, staring as it surged up Alaska Avenue.
Desperate to outrun it, she gripped the handle of the carriage and pushed with all her might, sprinting hard. The ground was still rolling, and the tidal wave roared like a beast on her heels. Her mind screamed with a frantic need to save herself and Cameron.
She ran past a building just as its concrete facade collapsed into rubble and sent a cloud of masonry dust into the air.
The dark wave was still racing into town, gaining on her. Pure survival instinct took over as she pushed Cameron farther inland.
Another deep fissure opened in front of her. The front wheels of the carriage plunged into it. Valerie tugged and wrenched at the handle, but the vehicle was stuck. She scrambled in a mad panic to rescue Cameron from the trapped carriage, to take him into her arms and keep running, but frothy, ice-cold water slammed into her and knocked her off her feet.
No! The wave sucked her under, tossed her up to the surface, and sucked her down again.
Something struck her in the head, and she went numb, her body weak and immobile in a black, silent void. There were no more thoughts or fears. Only darkness. Nothingness.
Then the nightmare resumed. Valerie was engulfed in cold. She broke the surface of the foaming water and gasped for air. She was thrown against a car wedged vertically in a deep crevasse. In that instant, the wave slowed and began to retreat toward the bay, but it had carried Valerie two full blocks into town.
Dizzy and disoriented, wet, and shivering, she found her footing and chased after the outgoing wave, sprinting toward the fissure where Cameron was trapped, still buckled into the carriage, she prayed. She ran faster than she’d ever run in her life, but when she reached the crevasse, the world turned white as her hyperfocused gaze darted left and right, searching. The carriage was gone.
She took off again, chasing the wave that had retreated into the bay and taken the Chena back out.
The docks and everything upon them had been sucked into the sea. But all she cared about in that moment was Cameron. Her frantic eyes searched everywhere. The earth was still shaking, but she was barely aware of it. Then another deep fissure opened directly beneath her, and before she realized what was happening, she dropped straight into it.