THE CELESTIALS: A Rehoboth Beach Story
by Phil Giunta
At Parsell Funeral Home in the quaint, coastal town of Lewes, Delaware, Laurel and Rod Jaggar stood beside their sister’s closed casket, shaking hands with a seemingly interminable line of complete strangers. Laurel was astonished that their reclusive sister, Celeste, had made so many friends since moving to nearby Rehoboth Beach eight years ago. It was only after the first dozen mourners expressed their condolences with such phrases as, “I loved your sister’s novels,” and “I met Celeste at a book signing at Browseabout,” that Laurel understood the truth. These people were not friends, but fans. They knew Celeste only through her work and occasional public appearances. Nevertheless, their well-intentioned sympathies left Laurel with a bitter sting of guilt—neither she nor her brother had ever read a single one of Celeste’s books.
As shame compounded her grief, Laurel wiped away another stream of tears from her face and accepted the fact that these people probably knew Celeste better than her own family did. She shot a sidelong glance at the casket and closed her eyes, trying to erase the image of Celeste’s battered body. Somewhere else in Delaware, the drunk driver who killed her was also being laid to rest.
Another loyal reader clutched Laurel’s hand, muttered the standard cliché, and stepped aside. Will this never end? She glanced up in relief as the last five people in line approached together, led by a distinguished, elderly gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair. He introduced himself as Rusty Dickinson.
“I can’t tell you what an honor it is to meet you,” Rusty began. “I only wish it were under brighter circumstances. I know the past few days have been difficult for you both, but we just wanted you to know that we owe a special debt of gratitude to Celeste. She helped each of us in ways no one else could, which is why we volunteered to be pallbearers.”
Laurel and Rod exchanged puzzled glances. “Thank you very much,” Rod said.
Rusty stepped aside and gestured to the others. The first was a tall, lean young man who introduced himself as Christian Bayard. As they shook hands, Laurel couldn’t help but notice his unblemished bronze complexion.
By contrast, Virginia Kent was a pale, full-figured teenager with jet-black hair and matching lipstick, both of which complemented her one-piece black dress and zippered boots. Laurel could tell by Rod’s forced smile that he was as disconcerted as she was by the girl’s appearance, which also included a chrome nose ring and piercings in both eyebrows. Our Celeste hung out with someone like this?
Bringing up the rear was a middle-aged couple who introduced themselves as Dutch Draper and Carla Dodd. Doleful eyes belied their warm smiles as each engulfed Laurel and Rod in a firm embrace.
Laurel found herself wondering how such a motley group had ever come to know one another, let alone someone as private as Celeste. As if sensing her bewilderment, Rusty leaned close with a reassuring smile. “You’ll understand everything soon enough.”
The service was held at the Solid Ground non-denominational church, where each of Celeste’s friends delivered a brief, touching eulogy. Virginia was the first to speak, addressing Laurel and Rod directly.
“I wanted you to know how much Celeste changed my life. I’ve struggled with depression since I was a kid, but I fell into drug addiction after my family turned their backs on me when I came out. Thanks to your sister, I’ve been clean now for three years. I work full time and I have an apartment here in Lewes. Celeste did more than change my life. She saved it.” With a lopsided smile, Virginia wiped her eyes and stepped away.
Christian followed, recounting how Celeste had helped him overcome his fear of the ocean after the drowning death of his mother when he was a child. Then, Dutch and Carla took the lectern together and credited Celeste with helping to reunite them after they’d lost touch nearly three decades ago.
Finally, Rusty Dickinson imparted a tale that left Rod stunned and Laurel in tears. The murder of his wife six years ago had launched him on a downward spiral into alcoholism. This was exacerbated by a series of financial misfortunes that had left Rusty broke, homeless, and on the verge of suicide. “But through Celeste, I found the hope and strength to take control of my life. I think it’s fair to say that Celeste saved me.” He paused, spreading his arms to indicate the others from his group. “She saved us all.”
By the time they arrived at Henlopen Memorial Park, the morning clouds had dispersed. Beneath an unblemished September sky, Rod and Laurel placed a tear-drop shaped bouquet of white pom-poms and lilies atop Celeste’s casket while the others stood at a respectful distance.
“She deserved better from us,” Laurel whispered. “We were the only family she had left and we had nothing to say at her service.”
She turned and stormed off toward Rusty and his group. “I’d like to know more about our sister and how she helped all of you.”
Rusty nodded. “Well, no better time than the present. Have you eaten today?”
“Come to think of it, no.”
“Let’s do something about that. I’m hosting a reception later at my house on Delaware Avenue, not too far from Celeste’s place. We’d be honored if you and Rod would join us.”
As Celeste’s sole heirs, Rod and Laurel had inherited her house on Sandalwood Street in Rehoboth Beach and were staying there for the week while they decided what to do with it. After freshening up, they walked the half-mile to Rusty’s place and were still discussing their options when they arrived.
“You should rent it out,” Rusty advised as he poured drinks. “You could make a hell of a profit, pay off the mortgage, and have a vacation house when you need it. If you don’t like the summer crowd, Rehoboth is open all year round. You should come here at Christmas, it’s beautiful.”
Rod shrugged. “I’m not much for the beach, but Laurel loves it.” He nudged her with his elbow. “Maybe you’ll finally find that rich husband you’ve been looking for.”
She narrowed her eyes at him before addressing Rusty. “You said that our sister saved your lives. Personally or through her writing?”
Rusty handed her a drink. “Both, my dear. I only wish I could have returned the favor.” He turned toward the others and raised his glass. “To Celeste. May her words last forever.” Around the table, everyone repeated the sentiment as they clinked their glasses together.
Rusty pointed to Rod and Laurel. “I take it that you haven’t read too many of your sister’s books.”
Rod shook his head. “We read a lot of her short stories when she started writing in high school and into college, but after our parents died, we drifted apart.”
Rusty held up a hand. “Say no more. I’ll tell you what. If you want to know exactly what Celeste did for us, you should read her Sands of Time series. Four books, all short novels, easy reading. You can blast through one in a night or two. I think the longest one is about a hundred and seventy-five pages. I have a spare set. It’s all yours. That way, you get the whole picture and in Celeste’s own words.”
“Which one did you read?”
At the Royal Treat for breakfast the following morning, Rod and Laurel placed their orders before delving into a discussion about their sister’s novels.
“Beneath the Surface,” Laurel replied. “It’s the one about Christian Bayard. I wonder if he signed a release form because Celeste didn’t even change his name. It had me in tears. I won’t spoil it for you, but after his mother drowned when he was five, Christian was passed around from one family member to the next and some of them were horribly abusive. He ran away when he was fourteen after one of his uncles doused him in gasoline and tried to light him on fire. Christian jumped into a bay up in Maine and swam for miles to get away. The rest of the book is a pretty wild ride until he got to Rehoboth to become a lifeguard and scuba instructor.”
“I got one better. You should read The Pressure at this Depth about Rusty Dickinson. It’s just like he said at the funeral. The guy had an idyllic life until his wife was shot during a convenience store robbery in Chicago. If that wasn’t bad enough, Rusty’s identity was stolen and it took years to clean that up. He lost his job, his house, everything. He almost committed suicide before ending up here in Rehoboth and turning his life around. That book kept me up all night.”
“Can’t wait to dive into the others,” Laurel said. “Although I think they all end with the main characters coming to Rehoboth. Still, Celeste turned out to be an amazing writer. She came a long way from her early stuff.” After a pause, Laurel continued. “We really should have read her books while she was alive. We should have been more supportive after mom and dad died. Instead, we let her down. Did we ever once come to see her after she moved here? She invited us a few times, but it took her death to get us here.”
“I know,” Rod sighed. “I feel horrible about that, but to be honest, I never knew how to relate to her. Celeste was just different. She was always so damn aloof and withdrawn. It always made things awkward. At least I kept in touch with her via email for a little while.”
“That isn’t the same.”
The waiter brought their food and they ate in silence. Afterward, Rod picked up the check. As they left the Royal Treat, he pointed toward the boardwalk. “Take the scenic route?” Laurel nodded and they started up Wilmington Avenue.
“I just find all of this hard to believe,” she said, as they both slipped off their flip-flops and started down the ramp onto a beach teeming with activity. “I mean, what could make someone as anti-social as Celeste open her life to all of these troubled people? They said she helped them through their problems, but how? Clearly, they inspired her books, but was she just a shoulder for them to cry on? Did she lend them money? Did she put them up at her house until they got back on their feet?”
“I can’t imagine her doing any of that.” Rod glanced over at a group of lifeguards gathered near the water, all wearing the standard red swimsuits of the Rehoboth Beach Patrol. He took a few steps toward them before pointing. “But I think I see someone who can answer your questions. Isn’t that Christian right there? The one who just tossed his bag beside the lifeguard chair?”
Laurel shaded her eyes and followed Rod’s gaze to an attractively tanned, and perfectly toned, young man who shucked off his white t-shirt and dropped it into his bag. If only I were fifteen years younger… Once he slipped off his sunglasses, she recognized the face. “Yep, that’s him.”
Rod gestured for her to lead. As they approached, Christian looked up and waved, almost as if expecting them.
“Hi, again,” Laurel began. “Sorry to bother you.”
The lifeguard shrugged. “It’s no bother. My shift doesn’t start for another ten minutes. It’s good to see you again. How do you like Rehoboth?”
“Love it so far,” Laurel replied before asking him to elaborate on what he’d said in his eulogy about Celeste.
“Your sister literally wrote my life story,” Christian said. “Same goes for all of the others. So what you read in the books is exactly how she helped us.”
Laurel started to reply, but Rod cut her off. “Sorry if I’m a little dense. So the only thing Celeste did was write about your lives and that was all you needed to find direction? We were under the impression that maybe she loaned you money or gave you crash space or counseled you in some way.”
“Not exactly.” Christian held up a hand. “If you two are free tonight around seven, we’re having a small memorial for your sister at Rusty’s house. You’re more than welcome to join us. All of your questions will be answered.”
They arrived a few minutes late. Rusty offered them several choices of beverage and Christian volunteered to play bartender. As he made his way back toward the kitchen, the others engaged Rod and Laurel in idle conversation about their stay in Rehoboth. Laurel marveled at Virginia Kent’s intricate sleeve of tattoos, revealed by her black tank top, while the reunited couple, Dutch Draper and Carla Dodd, once again stood with their arms around each other as if joined at the hip.
Finally, Christian returned with their drinks and Rod and Laurel took seats on the sofa.
“So, following up on our conversation on the beach earlier,” Christian began. “When I said your sister literally wrote my life story, I meant that your sister gave me my life story.” He gestured toward the others. “She gave life to all of us, which is why we call ourselves the Celestials.”
Rod and Laurel exchanged puzzled glances.
“Let me explain.” Rusty rose from his easy chair and began pacing the room as he spoke. “Your sister believed that when a writer creates characters with depth and fully developed backgrounds and all of the flaws and foibles that make one human, those characters come to life in some other world or dimension.”
“Only we came to life here,” Virginia added.
“Here,” Laurel repeated, “in…Rehoboth?”
Rod laughed at Laurel’s earnest bewilderment. “OK, we’ll play along. So you’re saying that our sister created all of you simply by writing you as characters in her books.”
Rusty smiled and pointed at Rod. “Give that man a cigar!”
“That’s impossible.” Laurel shook her head. “Worse, it’s insane. Unless you’re God, no one can just create people out of nothing! If Celeste imagined all of you into existence, how could you get by without birth certificates and social security cards and drivers licenses?”
Rusty held up a hand. “Celeste didn’t create us from nothing. She created us from her beautiful and fertile imagination as well as her desperate loneliness. As for the rest, I’ll get to that shortly.” He stood beside Christian as he continued. “I’m not sure how well you two know Rehoboth, but just up the road, there are intersecting streets named Christian and Bayard.” He gestured to the others in turn as he continued. “On the north end of town, we have Virginia Avenue and Kent Street. Over by the bay, Dutch Road and Draper Drive and Carla and Dodd Avenues. As for me, the Rusty Rudder restaurant is on Dickinson Street in Dewey Beach. Celeste was a brilliant storyteller, but she didn’t work too hard at naming her characters.”
Light laughter went around the room as Rusty took a seat on the sofa beside a noticeably trembling Laurel. She shifted closer to her brother as Rusty looked from her to Rod. “The real reason you fell out of touch with Celeste was that she became angry when you both moved away after your parents died. She felt abandoned and that put a strain on your relationship with her. Isn’t that right?”
Rod shifted forward in his seat. Laurel knew he wanted nothing more than to leave, but a strange mélange of curiosity and fear kept her riveted. “Yes. She pleaded with us to stay, but we had lives of our own to—”
Rod took Laurel’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “We don’t owe these people an explanation. What happened in our family is none of their business. Let’s get out of here.” He stood, but Laurel’s legs refused to budge.
“I understand how you feel.” Rusty glanced over at the others before shifting in his seat. “If you’ll just indulge me for another minute.” He turned toward the nearest end table and opened the drawer. First, he retrieved a pair of white gloves. After donning them, he reached in again and produced a clear acrylic case containing a paperback book in pristine condition. With a gentle push, Rusty slid aside the top of the case. “Not long after your parents died, Celeste finished her first novel.”
As if handling the holiest of relics, Rusty held up the book using both hands. It was titled, While We’re Young. “Frequently, new authors will write themselves into their stories as the protagonist, under a different name, of course. This is one of those occasions. Celeste self-published this. She sold a few hundred copies at most, but never did a second print run. It’s mostly forgotten now.” Rusty turned the book over and presented it to Laurel and Rod. “Note the main character’s siblings mentioned in the back cover blurb.”
With mounting dread, Laurel leaned forward, but she knew what to expect even before she read the names. “Rodney and…Laurel.”
Rod shrugged. “OK, so Celeste named some characters after us. So what? She did not create us! We’re flesh and blood human beings!”
“No one is contesting that,” Rusty said, “but did you happen to read the ‘About the Author’ page in any of your sister’s books? It mentions that Celeste was one of three children. Would you like to hear her bio from her first novel?”
Rusty turned to the final page and read aloud. “Originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Celeste Jaggar was the only child of two incredibly busy parents. At a very early age, Celeste found companionship in such literary characters as Sherlock Holmes, The Three Musketeers, and Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr…” Rusty lowered the book—and his voice—as he looked from Rod to Laurel. “Celeste’s ability to alter her reality didn’t manifest until she began writing. As her storytelling skills improved, so too did her power. It wasn’t long before she was not only altering her own reality, but that of the world at large.”
“But I remember my life,” Laurel insisted. “All of it. Wouldn’t there be gaps in my memory if I was just a product of Celeste’s imagination?”
“What were you doing on this day five years ago?”
Laurel shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably working.”
“So there are gaps in your memory. Hardly anyone remembers every single day of his or her life. We remember significant conversations, events, achievements, relationships. In other words, fragments—and those were provided to us by Celeste. Now, to answer your earlier question about identification…”
Rusty lifted his wallet from the coffee table. Opening it, he produced a series of cards and laid them out as he spoke. “Social security, drivers license, medical insurance. Hell, even my discount cards from Giant and Food Lion. All of these things came into existence when we did. Celeste was nothing if not thorough.
“So this brings us back to the two of you. While Celeste was writing her first novel, she still lived in Pennsylvania, but was already spending her summer vacations here in Rehoboth. When you strolled the boardwalk this morning, did you happen to venture to the south end? If so, you might have noticed two streets there, one named Rodney and the other, Laurel. Please understand that we’ve been waiting a long time to meet you both.”
Rod was speechless.
Laurel began to weep.
Rusty grinned. “You are the first Celestials.”