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Henry's Re-entry

By Welcome Cole All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Adventure

Chapter 1

SOMEONE BANGED ON THE DOOR.

The noise was excruciating and relentless, like someone beating an iron bell with a crowbar.

Bam! Bam! Bam!

Henry buried his head in his arms and held on. The pain of the sound pulsed against his teeth. White light flashed behind his eyes with every reverberation.

Bam! Bam! Bam!

Just as he was certain the sound would kill him the knocking mercifully stopped, though the memory echoed on.

He drew a calming breath, then carefully pushed himself up from the floor. The pressure in his head exploded with the motion. It felt like someone had a vice locked on his skull and ratcheted it tighter with every movement.

He leaned back against a cold, hard surface. As the clouds grudgingly parted, he shoved the hair back from his face and forced his eyes open. The light pulsed uncomfortably around him in that manic way of cheap fluorescent tubes. He shaded his eyes and waited for the room to come into focus.

The room was the size of a large closet, tiled in a perfect shade of institutional jade. He sat on the floor hugging a dirty toilet with no seat. The floor was a warzone of black and white linoleum squares shimmying manically around him. The sight sent his stomach surging. He closed his eyes against it.

The knocking erupted again. The sound clanged violently through the room.

Gripping the greasy rim of the toilet, he pulled himself forward. The vice twisted a notch tighter against his head. His stomach threatened revolt but thankfully appeared to have no ammunition left to pull it off.

Bam! Bam! Bam!

He wanted to scream, wanted to throw himself through that door and beat the life out of his torturer. But the banging was too intense, too consuming. It sucked the strength from him, drained him of his will.

The knocking ceased as abruptly as it’d arrived, and the relief that new silence brought was epic in scope.

He steadied himself. He willed his stomach into compliance. The smell of vomit was nearly gagging. He hoped it was his own since he was wearing so much of it. It was accompanied by the sour stink of old urine (hopefully not his own), and the choking reek of well-ripened feces (certainly not his own). Altogether, it formed the telltale bouquet of another perfect outing.

The knocking kicked up again. It was downright pissy now. His teeth felt like they were going to burst out of his gums. “It’s occupied already!” he yelled at the door, “Jesus!”

“But I gotta pee!” a small voice cried from the other side.

It was a kid.

“Go find a fucking tree!” he yelled back.

Silence.

Thank God almighty. The relief felt as intense as coming up for air nearly a moment too late.

He twisted his neck to the tune of crackling vertebrae. The pain mounted the top of his skull and rode the slide all the way down his spine. He wasn’t sure he was man enough to try standing. Of all his suicidal outings, this one was ramping up to be the best one yet.

Still, as much as he was enjoying the Zen of this breathtaking moment, he knew he couldn’t loiter there all day. So he steadied himself against the cold porcelain, and on a count of three, made the move to get up.

The spins threw him back to the safety of the toilet. Not so fast, Henry, his stomach warned, You ain’t going nowhere yet.

 He fell back against the cold green tiles. As he waited for his stomach to tire of its tantrum, he gave himself a quick inspection. His right leg was generously painted in dried vomit, which perfectly complimented the stains on his sleeves. He had no socks, though he was still wore one black dress shoe. Strangely, it was missing its laces. His once white shirt was absent its tie and fully untucked. The left sleeve was ripped to the length of his forearm. Thankfully, a silver cufflink kept his wrists secured tidily. All in all, he figured he was perfectly attired for the venue: relaxed but not too sporty, stylish without being pretentious.

As he sat there, a queer sense of urgency seized him. The floor was cold and pitiless, and sitting there felt as uncomfortable as a beating. He needed to move now before he lost the willpower completely. So he braced himself again on the toilet rim, then painfully groped his way to his feet. Once upright, he fell back against the wall and held on while the spinning slowed to a safer velocity.

 He was in a four-by-six industrial-style restroom. The green walls were generously covered in petroglyphs à la Sharpie. A thorough investigation of the space revealed no clues as to whereabouts of his missing shoe. He emptied the wastebasket and prospected through the trash. Nothing.

He turned to the sink and cranked up the water. The spigot coughed a few times before releasing a stream that was just a shade less yellow than the water in the toilet. He splashed his face in it anyway. The paper towel dispenser was empty, of course, so he grabbed a spare wad from the spilled trashcan.

As he scrubbed the scabs of vomit from his shirt, he noticed a man staring back at him from the window over the sink. This guy was hideous. His right eye was purple and swollen just enough to give him that much desired rogue visage so vigorously pursued by the dysfunctional adolescent heart throbs in Hollywood these days. His black hair was tangled in ways that seemed to defy gravity. The straight-up Alfalfa lick at the back of his head was an especially creative touch.

He leaned in over the dirty sink. The man in the window did likewise. “Still alive, I see,” he whispered to the man, “Zoe’s not going to be any too happy about that. Where’s your team spirit?”

The man in the mirror scowled.

Henry suddenly felt sick, and it had nothing to do with the hangover. Her face barged its way into his head, the same one in the photos under his TV, the ones with the competition-grade scowls that made him think of that flaming head in the Wizard of Oz: Pay no attention to the dead woman behind the curtain, Henry.

His humor collapsed like a building imploding. The pain in his head doubled in sympathy.

He turned away from the mirror. As he tucked the stiffening shirttails into his pants, he realized his belt was missing. He looked back at the other man. “Jesus Christ!” he said, “Losing a shoe’s one thing, but losing your belt, too? That’s a new low, even for you.”

The pounding on the door resumed. Henry felt the vibrations clear through to his spine. He grabbed his head and yelled, “Piss off already!”

“It’s the manager. Open the door.”


TWO

HENRY STOOD IN THE GRAVEL PARKING LOT, WAITING FOR THE SPINS TO FINISH WITH HIM.

He watched the dust swirl in the wake of a departing semi. He found it impossible to focus on any one object as the world slowly twisted around him. Nothing seemed real. The air was too hot and the sunlight too metallic. It was ruining a perfectly tempered headache. He dug his thumbs into his eyes. It didn’t help.

When he dropped his hands, he saw something dark materialize in the settling dust halfway between himself and the depression-era gas pumps. He shaded his eyes beneath his forearm. It looked like a dress shoe. He hobbled over and picked it up.

Though now permanently deformed from a recent encounter with a truck’s tire, it was obviously the mate to the one he was wearing. Strangely, this one still had its laces. With some effort, he managed to wrench his bare foot into it.

He again shaded his eyes against the nuclear sky and took a long, careful look around. He was pleasantly surprised to find absolutely nothing familiar about his location.

He stood in the gravel lot between a beat-up old gas station and a ramshackle bar whose motif was suspiciously country-western. Squatting in an empty field directly across the two-lane highway from him was the shell of an old white stucco garage with blown-out windows and the words ‘County Jail’ spray-painted comically above the door. This quaint picture of Americana was colorfully framed by miles and miles of pretty much nothing else but rocks, dust, and scrub. The only signs of organic life were a couple mangled balls of dead brown vegetation bouncing their way merrily down the shoulder of the road.

“Tumbleweeds,” he whispered, “Henry, what have you done?”

He turned toward the ramshackle bar. Three pickups and an SUV sat baking in the gravel immediately outside it, none of which was his. The dusty license plates all suggested he might be in New Mexico, though they offered no specifics about where in that desert wasteland he might be or how he may have come to land here.

It seemed this time he’d skillfully exceeded even his normally professional-level recklessness. The blackout was a simply brilliant touch. He’d somehow managed to reenter the atmosphere hundreds of miles from home, touching down with no socks, no belt, no tie or jacket, no car. Put all together, it was an award winning accomplishment indeed! Aside from the fact that he still had a pulse, this was by far his best outing yet! Bravo! A round of applause, please!

He squeezed the back of his neck and attempted to rock the pain out of it. That vice wasn’t giving up on his head. If he was ever going to dig himself out of this mess, he needed medicine. And that bar moldering over there on the other side of this parking lot wilderness was his best hope for treatment, country-western motif notwithstanding.

He grabbed for his wallet and found an empty back pocket. His phone was gone as well, most likely hiding in the lining of his jacket, which was most likely lurking in the backseat of his car, which was almost certainly on its way to parts unknown without him.

To his great disappointment, he did find the wad of a twenty-dollar bill in his side pocket. It was the only foible to an otherwise perfect plan.


THREE

HENRY STOPPED BEFORE A SCARRED WOODEN STOOL CAPPED WITH A WORN OUT GREEN NAUGHAHIDE SEAT.

A woman’s nasally voice resonated from somewhere back in the shadows. She sang a sorry song about wandering around alone in the middle of the night looking for a supposed lover who clearly didn’t want shit to do with her.

He groped his way up onto the seat and leaned heavily into the faded Formica bar counter.

The long wooden back bar looked like a refugee from a western movie set, complete with a warped mirror bearing a spider-web crack at one corner that looked unnervingly like a gunshot wound. A pair of Grecian-like pillars stood at opposing ends of the bar, each supported by a naked, portly woman with a cherub smile and breasts one size too small for her body. A clock with no crystal and a yellowing face listed languidly on a dusty shelf above the bottles. The second hand hobbled forward in palsied beats as it counted down his wait. It told Henry it was three forty-seven, but Henry was pretty sure it told everyone that.

The space running in between the front and back bar was devoid of life. Where the hell was the bartender? He needed his bloody medicine. He drummed his fingers on the scarred counter as he looked out into the tables. Maybe there was a barmaid around.

Cigarette smoke swirled the room, as thick and physical as water tainted by drops of milk. The ghosts of two old cowpokes haunted a table beneath a dusty ceiling lamp made from an old wagon wheel. They hunched under their sweaty cowboy hats, holding onto their sweatier beer cans like lifelines. Two more cowpunchers huddled in the back behind a pool table that’d been old when jukeboxes made their debut. They leaned languidly into their pool sticks with the remnants of cigarettes pasted to their lips. They looked like they were serving a sentence, like they’d been playing that very same game for years now and had no hope of finishing it anytime soon. The sight gave Henry pause.

He wondered for just an instant if maybe his outing had been a success after all. Maybe the alcohol had finally driven him into a tree somewhere in the emptiness of the Wild, Wild West, and this was some kind of divine intervention, punishment for a life so poorly executed. Maybe he was doomed to an eternity haunting the planks of a backcountry saloon, alone and forgotten, and listening to classically depressing old country western singers.

Yet, even as he considered such a sentence, he knew it was little more than wishful thinking. It could never go that easily, not for him. Dying now would be like declaring karmic bankruptcy. He still had a lifetime of penance to pay, a lifetime of regret and guilt to endure. He’d taken everything she had. He’d taken her heartbeat, for Christ’s sake! A mortal lifetime suffering in atonement for his deeds would barely pay the interest on a crime like that. The principle would start when hell claimed him.

“What are you drinking, boy?”

Henry nearly jumped off the stool. The bartender might as well have materialized from the smoke.

“Where the hell did you come from?” Henry snapped at the man.

“Chicago, originally. But I’ve lived mostly right here.”

Henry just looked at him. The bartender was like the comic relief in an otherwise serious John Wayne movie. He was a ninety-year-old version of Stan Laurel, complete with a shock of white hair and an expression of shrewd bewilderment. He wore a denim work shirt with matching yokes, and pearl snaps buttoned up to his Adam’s apple. The frayed collar was choked into compliance by a cheesy turquoise bola. It almost made him blend in.

“What are you drinking?” the bartender asked again. He didn’t sound like he cared.

Henry slid the rumpled twenty across the fossilized rings left by long extinct beer bottles. “Direct and straight to the point,” he said, “I admire that in a bartender.”

“No need to butter me up,” the bartender said, “I’m obligated to serve you unless you’re drunk or violent. What would you like?”

“Bourbon.”

“Rocks?”

“Neat.”

“House?”

Henry looked down at the twenty pinned between his fingers. “Sadly, yes.”

“Judging by your smell and the telltale glow of an unhappy liver, I’d say water would be your wiser choice.”

Henry scowled at him. “Trying to poison me? Just be a good old cowpoke and bring me my medicine.”

The bartender shrugged, and and turned away.

“Water,” Henry said with a little laugh, “Plan’s too near to perfect to ruin now.”

He closed his eyes and rubbed his hands back across his scalp. He massaged his temples and brow and tried to coax the agony away. Chicago, he thought. Hilarious. The old prick was a real joker.

“Here you go, boy.”

Henry flinched again. He scowled up at the old man. “What the hell!” he said, “You know it’s rude to sneak up on people, right? I mean, that’s a true statement pretty much everywhere, even out here in purgatory.”

The bartender slid a drink across the counter. But instead of his bourbon, Henry found a sweating glass of water. A glob of stale looking ice floated miserably at the top of it. The old man held his bourbon back on the counter behind the poison.

“What’s this?” Henry asked him.

“You look like hell,” the man said as casually as if observing the weather.

“Well, of course I do, Slim. It’s perfectly keeping with the plan.”

“Gonna get yourself a kidney infection.” The man actually looked serious.

 “I ordered bourbon,” Henry said seriously, “I didn’t ask for—”

“Drink.”

Henry studied him a moment. The old man studied him back. Even for such a cartoonish morning-after, this was too surreal.

“Let me get this straight,” Henry said, “You’re holding my liquor hostage until I pay up by drinking the poison?”

“You’re a quick study, boy,” the old man said, “Direct and to the point. I like that in a customer.”

“You’re blackmailing me?”

The bartender shrugged and sniffed. “More like extortion, I expect.”

“Extortion?”

“It means getting something from a person through the abuse of one’s office or position of authority.”

“I know what extortion means! I mean, what gives you the right to hold back my drink?”

A wry grin pushed the old man’s thick wrinkles out of alignment. “I’m the bartender. You don’t like it, there’s another bar thirty miles due east of here. You could probably thumb it in about a week. Naturally, that would be depending on the traffic.”

Henry reached past the water for the bourbon, but the bartender quickly slid it out of reach. He moved like he’d had a lot of practice doing it.

“Are you kidding me?” Henry said, “You want to make a sale or not?”

The bartender’s cloudy eyes sank back into his creases like rocks disappearing into quicksand. “I hate to ruin your delusions,” he said, “But I’m only going to die a couple dimes richer or poorer based on whether or not I sell you a glass of whiskey this morning.”

Henry leaned back in his stool and dragged his hand down his face. The vice on his head was ratcheting tighter than he’d thought possible.

“I must be more hungover than I thought,” he said, “That or acid flashbacks really do happen.”

“Ain’t no flashback, boy. You’re awake. This is a real bar. This here’s a real glass of water. And that there’s a real, honest-to-goodness hangover you’re suffering. So you can drink that water or you can make for the other side of that door. Your choice.”

Henry wanted to scream. His head pounded, his pulse raced, and all he wanted was his bloody medicine and to be left alone.

Desperate now, he leaned into the bar and looked up at the old man. “Tell you what, pardner,” he said through a tight jaw, “This is absolutely the wrong day to be pushing me. I’m about one rude look from tearing this dump of a bar down. So, how about you just give me what I ordered, and I won’t climb over this bar and slap the stupid out of you?”

The bartender looked at him for a moment. And then he laughed.

Henry felt a peculiar pang of disappointment at the old man’s reaction. Then again, he was pretty sure a man with no socks or belt, and pretty much dipped in dried vomit, didn’t exactly represent a threatening figure.

“Think that’s pretty funny, do you?” he said for lack of anything sharper.

“Sure do,” the bartender said, “You don’t much look in shape to crawl around the bar, let alone climb over it.”

Henry couldn’t argue with that. He leaned back in his stool and mashed the butts of his palms against his eyes. Then he dropped his hands to his lap and watched the spots fade between them. He felt like he was careening down a wild river without a paddle. His only choices were to ride it out and see what happens at the end, or abandon ship. This outing could not possibly get any weirder.

“You know, I got me a sense about you, boy,” the bartender said.

It just got weirder.

Henry looked at him. “Do you, now?”

The old man was studying him like he was a worm struggling on a hot sidewalk, like he was trying to decide whether to move it to the grass, step on it and end its suffering, or just walk away and let it suffer the circumstances of its own stupidity.

“Yep,” the bartender said, “I had me a sense about you the second you crawled through that door over there.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Henry said, “Is that some kind of western code? I’m not gay or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking, so I wouldn’t be getting too excited about any tickle sessions in the bathroom later.”

The bartender threw a wet rag down on the bar. The cloth was pristine. It was so white, it seemed to glow of its own accord in the otherwise lifeless gloom of the bar.

“I know your type,” the old man said as he wiped the counter, “Think you’re one of a kind, ain’t that right? Special, maybe? The one-eyed man wandering through the land of the blind.” He chuckled at that.

Henry was lost for words. This situation just kept inching its way out past the bounds of sanity. If his body hadn’t ached so convincingly, he might’ve actually enjoyed it. He looked at the whiskey glass locked in the old man’s boney hand just north of the sweating glass of poison. He needed that medicine more than he needed to breathe. Maybe the best way to deal with hallucinations is just to play them out.

“All right,” he said at last, “I give. What kind of sense do you got about me?”

“You’re one of them sorry bastards likes to go the hard way.”

“The hard way,” Henry grumbled back, “And just what the hell is that supposed to mean exactly?”

“You like to go the hard way, but I suspect you don’t really have it in you,” the bartender said as he scrubbed the counter, “I suspect you just like the drama is all. You like the drama because it makes you feel important, gives you a sense of purpose, a reason for not being dead.”

Henry pinched at the flesh between his eyes. His heart clapped against his ears. He needed to get past this charade so he could get his medicine.

“You’re like a mouse wearing a cat mask,” the old man pressed, “You like to think you’re tough, and you like the folks you meet to think it, too, but it’s just a lie. You’re just good and angry is all. You’re just mad and you want the whole world mad with you. Am I getting close?”

Much to Henry’s shock, the words actually stung. But it was impossible! There was no truth in anything the man said. What did this old prick know about him anyway? Nothing. It was just the hangover jacking with his head again. It had to be. It was some bizarre, post-drunk delirium. All he needed was his medicine, then everything would begin to merge back into the normal lane again.

“Look, here’s the money,” Henry said, tapping a finger on the rumpled twenty, “Now be a good bartender and just give me the damned drink. Please. I’m not looking for trouble.”

“No, you go ahead and drink up that water first,” the bartender said, nodding at the poison, “Then you can have your whiskey. Don’t worry, you’ll still be plenty mad after you drink it, I promise.”

Henry’s head felt ready to explode. In spite of his misery, in spite of the vice slowly crushing his skull, he just couldn’t resist his darker impulses.

“What are you, the local shrink?” he said as harshly as he could manage, “Maybe this bar is the local crisis clinic. Is that it? Maybe you’re just trying to keep up on your practice?”

The old man studied him through his creases.

“That’s just about spot on, isn’t it?” Henry pressed, “You like to figger out folks when they come in here, yeah? It’s like your sideline here in the bar. Maybe folks come in plumb-dang full of problems and you git ‘em all patched up? Maybe you help the local cowpokes wrangle their way out of getting divorced for tapping the local sluts? Or maybe you help the local sluts wrangle their way out of being married to the local cowpokes? Maybe when strangers come in, you like to get the drop on them with a little Hee-Haw psychoanalysis just to keep it entertaining? Maybe pick up a few more nickels in tips, kind of like a monkey dancing for the organ grinder’s cup? Feel free to nod or wink if I’m close.”

The old man just looked at him as he wiped his hands in that obscenely white rag. At least, Henry thought he was looking at him; his eyes seemed to have disappeared completely into that mire of wrinkles.

After a moment, the man carefully folded up the rag and laid it before the well. “Nope,” he said, at last, “Just a bartender, I expect.”

“Just a bartender,” Henry said back. He eyed the whiskey locked in the old man’s unrelenting grip. Then he looked at tower of water blocking it. “Just a bartender with the power of God,” he whispered as he hoisted the clammy glass, “What is it you cowboy philosophers like to say? When you find yourself in a hole, it’s time to stop digging?”

“I don’t believe I’m familiar with that one, but it sounds like good advice. Maybe you should write that down and keep it in your wallet.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Henry said back, “Just as soon as I find my wallet.” A moment later, he slid the empty tumbler down the bar. “Happy?” he said, dragging a ripped sleeve across his mouth.

The bartender’s eyes re-emerged, and then he brandished what Henry supposed was a grin. “Not as happy as your liver will be.” Then, as he pushed the medicine across the bar, he said, “By the way, you smell like shit.”

“Ironically,” Henry said as he lifted the glass, “Shit’s the only thing I don’t smell like.” And then he punished the bourbon.


FOUR

HENRY WATCHED THE REFRESHED DRINK SLIDE ACROSS THE BAR TOWARD HIM.

“Where exactly you heading, boy?”

“Where am I heading?” Henry said as he lifted the second bourbon to eye level, “Hell, of course. The only place that’ll have me.”

“Hell’s a long way from here.”

Henry studied the ice cubes drowning in the amber liquor. “Yeah, well, I’m taking the scenic route.”

Zoe’s face materialized in the stale ice like an affirmation. Her last words to him erupted like a flash fire: I can’t live this way, Henry! I’m not strong enough, Henry! It’s not—

“Breathe, son.”

The voice startled Henry out of his terrors. His heart was working on his ribs again, beating at his chest like a chain ganger breaking rocks. He looked up. The old bartender was sucking on a cigar, the kind with the plastic tip like on a baby’s cup. Henry drew a deep slug of his bourbon, then dropped the glass back to the bar. When had it gotten so cold in here?

The bartender studied the end of his cigar like he was trying to read something written in the ash. Then he gave it a slow, gentle blow. Bits of ash leapt free and flitted to the bar as the coal flared. Apparently satisfied, he stuck it back in his mouth and looked at Henry. “Maybe you should try to drink another cup of water, boy.”

Henry only barely heard him. He stuck his finger into his drink and stirred the ice. “Tell me something,” he said as he worked the cubes, “Where exactly did I re-enter this time?”

“Re-enter?”

Henry looked up at the bartender. Should it be this hard? “Where did I splash down, Slim? What town, what state, what planet?”

“Ah. Sure. Well, it appears this time you crash landed twenty miles west of Defiance.”

“Defiance,” Henry repeated, “Oh, that’s perfect.”

 “You’re in New Mexico, boy. Old Route Sixty-Six is waiting for you right outside that door there.”

“Well, of course it is.”

The bartender clenched the plastic cigar tip between his yellowing teeth. He again took up that perfect white cloth and began wiping his hands in it. Though he’d been working that rag since Henry came in, it didn’t seem to be losing any of its luster. It seemed to be the only spark of light in a room where the shadows had shadows.

He dropped his head and wrestled against the vice locked on the back of his neck. “Defiance, New Mexico,” he said, “Damn, I’m good.” He started to laugh, but the pressure in his skull forced him to abort the attempt.

The old man pulled the cigar out of his mouth and leaned into the bar on crossed arms. “You’re a west coaster,” he said. His tone fully matched the insult obvious in the words. “I’d say you hail the San Bernardino parts. But that’s not where your roots are. In your heart, you’re a Midwest boy, ain’t you?”

“Well, that is one hell of a guess, old man,” Henry said, truly surprised, “I live in Riverside, but I’m from Michigan, originally. What, do I have an accent or something?”

“Or something.”

“Or something,” Henry repeated, “So, what’s your name, old man? Jed? Billy? Maybe Billy Bob, if we’re going to be formal?” He laughed again, and this time his eyes didn’t nearly pop out with the effort. Seemed the medicine was beginning to work.

“Clarence,” the bartender said, “Clarence Takoda.”

“Takoda? Sounds suspiciously Injun.”

“Sioux.”

Henry studied the old man for a moment. He was pale as ash and looked about as Native American as Mr. Rogers. In fact, he was the perfect textbook rendition of your All American, Papal sanctioned, Third Reich certified Anglo Saxon.

“You’re damned white to be an Indian,” he said as he stuck his finger into his drink and slowly agitated the ice cubes.

“Father was Sioux,” the old man said, “Mother was Lutheran.”

Henry just looked at him.

The bartender shrugged indifferently. “Lutheran genes won, I expect.”

It was a preposterously surreal moment, keeping perfectly in context with utter ridiculousness of this entire day.

“God, I swear this trip is proceeding seamlessly,” Henry said as he raised his glass to the man, “Pleasure, Clarence. You can call me Henry. Or Hank, if it’s more regionally palatable.”

“I have a phone back here, Henry. Calls all over the country. You’re welcome to use it to call a friend if you need to. No charge.”

Henry reeled his drink back to the graffiti burdened lip of the bar. A friend, he thought. He collected friends the way a lumberjack collected trees. Friends only complicated his plans. He lifted the drink and murdered it.

“I can even dial the number for you if you don’t think you’re steady enough.”

Henry dragged a hand over his mouth and slid the empty glass back at the bartender. “Nah, I’m good, old man. Don’t worry about it.”

The old man shrugged. “Well, I suppose a man as busy with his anger as you are probably wouldn’t have time for friends anyway. Or maybe they don’t have time for him.”

The words stung. Again. What was it with this guy? He had a tongue that could penetrate armor.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Clarence,” he said sharply, “Of course, I have friends. Everyone has friends. Serial killers have friends.”

“You got any friends near enough to come get you?”

“Sure, got one right back there in Riverside. He’d come get me in a heartbeat.”

“Do say.”

“I do. His name’s Cal. One syllable.”

“Cal,” the old man said like he was seriously thinking about it, “Short for Calvin?”

“How the hell would I know? Never occurred to me it might be anything bigger than Cal.”

The bartender laughed. “You must be very close friends.”

“Close enough, I suppose. Sadly, he’s an unemployed stoner and a total waste of skin, but I guess you take your friends where they’ll have you, yeah?”

“Cal sounds like a sad enough figure.”

“Sad is as sad does, Clarence.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“He’s a total screw up.”

“I’m sure he is.”

“He is.”

“I’ve no doubt,” the old man said with a little shrug, “What reason would a man like you have to exaggerate?”

Henry winced at that. Prick.

After a moment, he leaned into the bar and held his whiskey glass up toward the bartender. “Listen to this,” he said, “He’s diabetic, right?”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Henry said carefully, “But here’s the thing: He uses his diabetes as an excuse for every bad thing that’s ever happened to him. Wears it like a crown. Spends his life in a drug-induced stupor because, hey, what’s the point? He’s a diabetic, after all. He’s entitled, right?”

“I see.”

“I don’t think you do see, Clarence. I’ve tried to help him, tried to get him to improve himself, to stop being such a screw up, to stop pissing his life away, but…”

Henry stopped. He couldn’t finish it, and he wasn’t sure why. It was just the truth, wasn’t it? Cal was a screw up, right? When did understanding the truth start carrying a judgment value? It had to be the hangover. It was skewing reality into some bizarre phantom zone where nothing was what it should be.

“Perhaps the man just don’t have any ears.”

Henry looked up at the old man. “What did you say?”

“Perhaps he’s not as old and wise a soul as you. Perhaps he simply resists good influences.”

“Yeah,” Henry said, “Yeah, that’s it. He resists good influences. Not that it matters. It is what it is. He lives by the creed of the Born Loser. You know, like why put any effort into life? Death is coming for us all. I hate that shit. It’s weak.”

“Well, I expect you can give a pig a diploma, but it don’t make him a genius.”

“I suppose not.”

The old man pulled a long draw from his cigar, then sent the blue smoke fleeing to the ceiling. He seemed to study the swirls as they fled into the shadows. Then he looked back at Henry.

“I suppose that’s not why you won’t call him, though,” he said too softly, “I expect the truth is there’s a risk you’re wrong about it, that maybe he just ain’t much inclined to help you out, after all. I expect you’d rather suffer the trip back alone than face the possibility of that kind of rejection.”

Another well placed kick. Another blindside tackle.

“What are you talking about?” Henry said too quickly, “Of course, he’d help me. I just have to ask, that’s all. But I won’t ask, because I don’t care to extend my debt to the man.”

The old man threw a sly grin at that. “You smell that, Henry? Smells like bullpuck.”

Henry scowled. “Well, just what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means it’s a lie. It means the real reason you won’t ask is because asking for help don’t fit in with your plans.”

Henry’s mood took another nose-dive. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The bartender only looked at him. Any emotions he may have harbored about their conversation were cloaked beneath a camouflage netting of deep creases. Eventually, he gave a little sniff and said, “I see.”

Henry nodded at the bottle parked next to the bartender’s elbow and tapped the edge of his glass. “Oh, you see, do you?” he said as he watched the old man slowly twist the cap from the bottle, “Well, please don’t stop now, Clarence. Please enlighten me. What exactly is it you see?”

The bottle’s neck clinked merrily against the glass. “Well,” the old man said as he poured, “From where I’m standing, I’d say his problems don’t come anywhere close to challenging yours.”

“No?”

Clarence spun the cap back into place on the bottle and gave it a final twist. “No, sir. I’d say his lack of ambition won’t ever be dour enough to land him sitting there on that barstool next to you. Takes a special kind of problem to achieve a feat like that.”

“Oh, do tell,” Henry said sarcastically.

“Do tell,” the man said with a snort.

Henry steadied himself against another rush of irritation.

The bartender wiped the bottle with that perfect white rag, then set it carefully on the bar. “All right, Henry,” he said as he again folded the white cloth, “Here’s how I see it. It’s not that you’re shy about asking for help, because you’re not much shy about nothing. And it’s not that you wouldn’t appreciate the help, or at least the sentiment of it being offered. Matter of fact, I think being offered the help would just about throw you to tears.”

Henry laughed at that. “That’s good. Keep going.”

“No, it’s a heck of a lot simpler than that, ain’t it? You won’t ask for help because help don’t fit into your agenda.”

Henry lifted his drink. “Agenda,” he said, “I’m intrigued. Don’t stop now.”

Clarence leaned forward onto the bar again. His cloudy old eyes were still smothered in wrinkles, but now they looked more like the gathering clouds of an approaching storm.

“You want the truth, boy?” he said carefully, “You sure you can handle it?”

“Bring it on, brother.”

“All righty then, here it is. Your agenda’s about as full and dark as a drunken evangelist’s sermon. It’s written all around penitence.”

Henry looked back at him. “Penitence?”

“Penitence,” Clarence said, “You’re punishing yourself because no one else will do it for you. Truth is, you’ve got blood on your hands, ain’t that right?”

The temperature in the bar plummeted. Henry’s eyes fled to the cowboy ghosts floating through the smoke deep in the shadows of the bar. Zoe tried to barge her way into his thoughts again, but he immediately bolted the door against her. He couldn’t let her in, not here, not now, not in this absurdly hysterical moment in his life.

“Then again, what do I know?” Clarence said too suddenly, “I’m just a bartender, an old man tottering at the abyss. Hell, the wife’s always accusing me of suffering Old Timer’s disease. Can’t remember to wipe my own rear half the time, or so she says.”

Henry forced himself to look up at the man.

“Besides, it don’t much matter either way, does it? We are what we are, and it ain’t my place to judge.” With that, he picked up the white rag and went back to cleaning at a bar that needed no cleaning.

“What?” Henry said, feigning surprise, “That’s it? You’re just going to end it there? Make me suffer through the speech, but deny me the moral lesson at the end? Why, I never figured you for a quitter, Clarence.”

Clarence stopped wiping and looked at Henry, looked at him like he had x-ray vision, like he could see clear through to Henry’s soul. Henry couldn’t see his eyes through the wrinkles, but he sure as hell could feel their heat. Maybe he’d hit a nerve in the old man. He seriously doubted it.

“All right, Henry,” Clarence said. He was smiling at Henry the way a mortician smiles at a corpse just before the embalming, like this is it, this is the end of your mortal life, and, goddamn, I’m so sorry to have to do this.

Henry suddenly felt a fear he couldn’t explain. “Don’t play me, Clarence,” he said with a forced grin, “Just say it. Man, it’s like waiting for the damned hammer to fall. Get on with it already.”

“You want the moral?” Clarence said as seriously as a judge passing a capital sentence, “Fine, here it is. Truth is it don’t matter what you’ve done or what you’re guilty of. It don’t matter one whit what your crime is. It don’t matter because the prize you covet is the punishment, not the forgiveness. You’re claiming survivor’s rights to your guilt, and you don’t give a hoot one way or another whether the blood on your hands is your fault or not. You just want the penalty.”

Henry seized the lifeline of the bar and tried to steady himself. That one hurt. That one caught flesh. It took all his strength to stay in that stool, to deny the overpowering urge to run for the door and flee out into the desert heat.

“All you care about is the sentence,” Clarence continued, oblivious to or unconcerned about the terror seizing Henry, “But the truth is, you’re not near strong enough to exact the sentence you think you deserve, not in a direct line anyhow. You approach your so-called punishment in a roundabout way because it’s easier, because it takes less commitment. You want out of your life, but you’re afraid to do the deed. So you settle for self-imposed exile, which will ultimately bring the same results, ain’t that right? You’re heading for that dark door, you’re just not doing it in a hurry. You’re waiting for someone else to do it for you. Are you listening to me, Henry?”

Henry lifted the bourbon but stopped short of a sip. The oxygen seemed to have evacuated the room. His hand was shaking. He quickly anchored it to the counter. He locked his eyes on the drink squatting before him, because that drink suddenly felt like the only safe place in the bar.

The old man picked up the bourbon bottle, retightened the cap, then stowed it behind the bar. “Here’s the moral, Henry,” he said, “You’re a coward camouflaged in anger. The only thing you’re running from is yourself. If you were serious about your guilt, you’d be propping up a headstone back there in Riverside right now. Or maybe Michigan. Don’t matter. Dead is dead, and the parking spot don’t mean diddley.”

Henry finished his drink and threw the glass down on the bar. This nobody bartender in Hell’s Half Acre, New Mexico had effectively ruined an otherwise perfect morning. He looked up into the creases where he’d last seen the old man’s eyes, but the storm simmering there was too intense. He wheeled away from it and fled back to his now empty glass, which was perfectly centered in a fossilized beer ring on the worn Formica separating them.

When he was confident he could safely breathe again, he said, “Another drink, please, Clarence. That is, if you’re finished analyzing me.”

“The most dangerous lies under God’s heaven are the ones you tell yourself, Henry. You can’t face the truth if you don’t know what the truth is. You can only run like hell and hope you’re running fast enough and in the right direction.”

The man’s words hanged before Henry like a stoplight that wouldn’t change. He couldn’t go forward and he couldn’t run back. The man had completely blindsided him. The truth was Zoe was dead and it was his fault, and no cowboy philosopher was ever going to change that truth. And in that moment, he hated every living soul on earth.

Clarence mashed his cigar out in a beat up black plastic ashtray that was the size of a hubcap. “Got a bathroom in the back,” he said, “Got a soap dispenser there, too. You oughta do the world a favor and wash up before you hit the road.”

“Hit the road?” Henry said, trying to act like he didn’t see it coming, “Why, Clarence! Are you cutting me off?”

Clarence scooped up the empty glass and swiped the bar with that ridiculously white rag. He didn’t look at a Henry and he didn’t speak.

“Fine!” Henry said, “I refuse to beg. I was raised better than that.” But even as he said it, he knew it was just a smokescreen. Truth was he was suffocating. It was all he could do to resist bolting for the door.

The old man gave him one last long inspection, then simply nodded and walked away, sliding his old hand along the bar surface to steady himself.

Henry held up the rumpled twenty. His hand was still shaking. He pinned it back to the counter. He had to get the hell out of here. “My tab, please, Clarence!”

“On the house,” Clarence said without looking back, “Now go clean up. You smell like shit.”


FIVE

HENRY SAT ON THE GUARDRAIL, SLOWLY BROILING IN THE MURDEROUS HEAT.

It was like sitting in front of an open smelt furnace. It felt like the sun had burned all the oxygen out of the air so that every breath scalded his lungs.

He was beginning to wish he hadn’t been so short sighted about Clarence’s recommendation on the water. He twisted around and looked back through the atomic heat waves at the aging bar simmering in the distance behind him. If that sorry old paleface Indian hadn’t sent him on his merry way on such a sour note, he’d be tempted to crawl his way back over and beg for a glass.

Then again, the hour they’d spent together had been like drinking with Nostradamus, nothing but dour observations and unhealthy prognostications. The man was so full of hot gas, it was a wonder the place didn’t go up in flames every time he farted. What a bunch of bullshit. And the sorriest thing about it was that he’d damned near succumbed to the old bastard’s Roy Rogers counseling. No, it was much better out here in the open, heat or no heat.

Unfortunately, four hours baking on this guardrail had pretty well smothered his faith in hitchhiking. The day was closing in quick, and the thumb he was trolling the road with had only pulled in a couple nibbles. His first ride had driven him a solid hundred feet before kicking him out. With the second ride, he’d barely opened the door before it pulled away without so much as a ‘by your leave’. He figured it had to be the smell. He smelled like shit.

A road weary, late model sedan materialized from the dense heat vapors flooding the highway. The dust had tainted its burgundy finish to a tawny haze the color of the smog that perpetually hugged LA. Henry stuck his thumb out half-heartedly and with no expectations of a bite. The car buzzed by exactly as he expected. But then, completely against plan, the brake lights flamed and the car veered off onto the shoulder and came to a stop in a plume of dust. Henry ran toward it as fast as his blisters allowed.

The trunk and rear bumper of this current opportunity were tagged like a train car with the automobile equivalent of graffiti. Each of the dozen haphazardly applied bumper stickers verbalized some variation on the theme of Jesus saving his undeserving ass. With his luck, this would be the ride that actually took him somewhere.

He grabbed the latch and pulled the door open. The chilled air rushing out through the open door felt like a dive into a cool spring.

“Howdy, son,” a voice called from the other side of the cabin.

“I appreciate the ride,” Henry said as he slid into the passenger seat.

As he settled into place, he wondered if there was going to be enough room for both of them. The man was huge, easily three hundred pounds. He was dressed in a well-travelled black suit that looked a half size too small. He wore a tired white shirt with a dull black tie. His head looked like it’d been scooped onto his collar without benefit of a neck, erupting from his suit like a fat red balloon swelling up from a collar an inch too tight. The bottom of the steering wheel was clenched convincingly against his belly.

Henry was barely onboard when the man leaned across the divider between the seats and peered out the still open passenger’s door. His voluminous head was painted with a ruddy, jowly face. The head hovered there for several beats, practically leaning against Henry’s chest as the man scanned the roadside beyond.

The man’s eyes eventually rolled up toward him. “Where’s your gear, son?” The head didn’t withdraw.

Henry retreated as far back into his seat as he could manage. He worried the giant head might pop right there in front of him, and he sure as hell didn’t need any more stains.

“My gear?” he said without breathing.

The man slowly withdrew back into his own seat, scratching at the Caesar’s crown of greasy hair pasted to the folds on the back of his head. “Your luggage,” he said like he was speaking to a foreigner, “Your suitcase? Backpack? Duffel bag? Sack? Where’s your gear?”

“Oh, my gear!” Henry said as he pulled the door shut, “It’s in my car.”

The man looked at him like he was trying to interpret code. “Well, where’s your car, son?”

“I suspect it might be on its way home.” Henry smiled as insincerely as he could manage.

“On its way home?”

“Not to worry. It’s had a lot of experience.”

The man smiled and nodded politely, the way one does when a stranger mentions the Voices. Then he turned to the steering wheel and seized the shifter. But he didn’t engage the drive. Instead, he paused, then threw Henry a look that made him feel like he should empty his pockets.

“I’m going to be straight with you, son,” the man said carefully, “As you can see by my luggage, I’m a man of the Lord, praise His glory.”

Henry glanced at the indicated back seat. The robes hanging on the door looked decidedly clerical. There was also a worn brown bible sitting on the backseat, and a string of dangling blue crucifixes lining the rear window like Low Riders for Jesus.

“I see,” Henry said. How could he not?

“As a man of God, I’m inclined to help folks in need, which is why I offered you, a man I don’t even know, a ride. See… even through the dust on my windows, even at sixty miles per hour, I could see by your… eh, appearance… I could see that you were in need of some assistance.”

“Well, I appreciate your—”

“But I am compelled to be straight with you, son. I simply have no tolerance for the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is the dark serum that turns a good man into Mr. Hyde.”

Mr. Hyde? Henry felt the ground drop beneath him. He might just as well get out now and avoid the drama.

The man’s brow was so low on his face, it looked like an impending landslide. “It’s not my place to cast judgment,” he said carefully, “And I mean you no disrespect. However…”

Henry glanced out at the heat waves beckoning to him from the endless scrubs, and he suffered a moment’s panic. He couldn’t face that heat, not again.

“…I can smell the liquor on your breath. It’s quite strong and it’s quite recent. I have had some sorry experiences with that same affliction myself, a history for which I pray daily for forgiveness.”

“Liquor?” Henry said matter-of-factly, “No, sir. You’re mistaken.”

“Son, I cannot suffer a liar.”

“I’m not lying.” He was absolutely lying. Poorly.

The man threw a chunky finger up between them. “The devil is the father of lies,” he said, “The truthful lip shall be established forever, but a lying tongue is only for a moment. Proverbs 12:19.” Then he extended that same finger out at the passenger door like the Ghost of Christmas Future showing Scrooge his fate. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to disembark this vehicle, my friend, though I wish you the best of luck. I most sincerely do.”

Henry thought fast. He was too sick to lose this ride. The cold air flowing over his feet and legs felt like a lifeline. He couldn’t possibly bear another minute in that damned sun. He was trapped, and in that moment of desperation, he resorted to the truth.

“I shouldn’t have lied,” he said plainly, and hopefully not too quickly, “I’ve had a couple drinks, it’s true. And I don’t normally drink so early in the day, but… well, the truth is…”

“Yes?”

“The truth is…”

“What is the truth, son?”

Think fast, Henry. “The truth is… well, it… well, for all its negative influences, it does numb the pain.”

The man was staring at him like he was never going to stop. His eyes were large and widely spaced, and they were darkly ringed, like he hadn’t had much time for sleep in the last year or so. The left eye appeared more interested in what was happening out in front of the car than straight ahead. Yet they still radiated all the intensity of a wildfire. And just as Henry was convinced he should simply leave of his own accord and avoid the scene that was inevitably to follow, the big man withdrew into his own seat, sliding back across the car like a garbage scow backing up to a dock.

“Pain?” he said, “How do you mean, pain?” His posture had relaxed, but his eyes remained metal detectors. They offered no quarter. He was ready to arrest a lie on sight.

Henry considered the question. There were so many possibilities. He thought about explaining how he’d awakened on the floor of a gas station bathroom with no jacket, no wallet, no belt or tie, a missing shoe, and no memory of how he’d ended up there, but that was too close to the truth. Anyway, he knew exactly how he ended up there. He knew the reason, anyway, it was just the specifics he lacked. No, he had to use a different excuse.

“I’m waiting, son.”

“It’s complicated,” Henry said, for lack of a more convincing tack.

“That’s the best you’ve got? It’s complicated? Well, life’s complicated, son. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.” He rolled over into Henry’s seat again and reached across for the door handle, more insistently this time.

“I’m in mourning,” Henry said quickly. Too quickly, probably. Too quickly, almost certainly. It was a cheap, dirty resort that he instantly regretted. Not that it mattered. The man was bound to see his desperation as clearly as his black eye anyway. Game over. Thanks for playing.

But then, to his surprise, the man actually paused with his sweaty head hovering inches from Henry’s face. Henry again tried not to breathe.

“Mourning?” the man asked seriously.

A chink in the armor. Henry had used a semblance of the truth to keep it honest, and it had worked, but he now had to tread very carefully. If he got too close, it could bring him down.

“I lost my wife,” Henry said. He didn’t mention that it was four years ago. He also didn’t mention that he’d murdered her, or that he was a soulless asshole who was full throttle into a four-year suicide mission. Man, this was a new low even for him.

The man retreated into his seat. His brow slowly receded back up over his forehead, and a kind of sad darkness seemed to fill him. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said so softly, it seemed unreal, “That’s… most unfortunate.”

The words landed like a knife pinning a note to Henry’s chest with the words ‘Soulless Asshole’ scrawled on it. I’m sorry for your loss. The words threatened to drop the hangman’s gangplank beneath him.

“Arrogance should be punished,” the man said suddenly and in a startlingly robust voice, “So that people who don’t know anything better can learn a lesson from it. If you are wise, you will learn when you are corrected. Proverbs 19:25.”

Henry didn’t even have a clue what that meant.

“I’m sorry, son. I’m told I’m inclined toward haughtiness. It’s a form of arrogance. It means blatantly disdainful.”

“I know what haughtiness means,” Henry said, without knowing why.

“It’s a sin. And sadly, I’m greatly drawn to it. It’s the reason my wife has… well, moved on.”

Henry had no inclination to ask, but he sincerely prayed she wasn’t dead. He had no wish to share that burden with the man.

“My arrogance is like an affliction,” the man continued, “I pray on it often and with deep humility.”

Deep humility? Henry was beginning to hope he’d be asked to leave again.

“I’d like to ask you to forgive me,” the man continued, “I had no right to accuse you of lying, especially given your… your unfortunate situation.”

“Forgive you?” Henry’s stomach twisted. Forgiveness wasn’t a tool he typically kept sharpened. Vindictiveness, spite, and resentment more clearly defined his toolshed.

“Please, son. I am truly sorry.”

The man looked over at Henry from an expression of deep, almost surreal humility. Henry suddenly worried he was going to be asked to pray with him, maybe get out of the car and kneel in the hot gravel together, maybe even hold hands. He tried to think of an exit strategy before the dreaded event could materialize.

But before he could be called upon to prostrate himself before God, the man abruptly relaxed. He smiled and nodded, then threw the car into gear and yanked them roughly out onto the highway.

And as they accelerated down that burning highway with a delicious winter breeze hissing out from beneath the dash, Henry leaned back in his seat and drew a thankful breath, whispering “Thank God Almighty.” He even threw in a complimentary ‘Amen’ just for good measure.


SIX

HENRY TWISTED THE PLASTIC CAP FROM THE BOTTLE OF POISON THE MAN HAD FORCED ON HIM.

The cut-rate plastic crackled most unsavorily in his hand. It looked cheap enough to be a Chinese import. How could that possibly be a good thing? He wondered what exotic pleasures lurked behind that clear liquid. Chemicals, perhaps? Maybe pharmaceuticals? A blood thinner? Piss?

In the end, he decided it just didn’t matter. If he had any hopes of pursuing this magnificent outing to its resolution, he had to take the risk. He had to drink it and hope for the worst. So he thanked the man with a salute, then took a deep slug. It was warm and thick and tasted like a dead soul, but what choice did he have? This bible thumper obviously didn’t have any liquor.

He carefully recapped the poison, then cranked the seat back and watched the passing monotony. Rocks, scrub, dirt, road kill, more rocks. How the hell did he ever manage to end up out here in the middle of nowhere? This outing wasn’t just a breathtaking success, it was Epic. It was Homer’s Odyssey. It was Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. It was Kerouac’s On the Road. It was the fucking Encyclopedia Britannica!

He closed his eyes and shoved the heel of his palm into his forehead. Was the vice ever going to stop tightening? Surely, there was a limit to the pain a headache could inflict? At some point, his skull was simply going to rupture and spare him the misery of enduring it. It couldn’t just keep getting worse, could it?

“What’s your name, son?”

It just got worse.

The free exchange of names could open a boxful of tedium and mundane conversation with a man he’d normally cross the street to avoid.

“Son?”

“Henry,” Henry said, forcing a smile, “It’s, uh… it’s Henry.

“Pleased to meet you, Henry. I’m Joshua. Reverend Joshua White. But my friends call me Josho. You’re welcome to do likewise if it pleases.”

At least the man didn’t offer a hand. “Good to meet you,” Henry said, without putting too much encouraging enthusiasm into it.

“I’m heading up Santa Fe way. Where you heading, Henry?”

Henry tried to envision a map of New Mexico. It was over by Texas, right? Maybe close to Oklahoma? Truth was he didn’t have a clue. And he didn’t care, just so long as he was heading back to California.

“I turn north at Albuquerque,” the man said, “That’s a couple hours down the road.”

“That’ll work fine,” Henry said. Then he added a quick, “Thanks,” because he probably ought to.

“Got a hearing with my wife,” the man continued. His bottom lip was curled out like a snail rolling out of its shell. He’d stationed his left hand at midnight on the steering wheel and was tapping his wedding band against the plastic. The tapping was a little too manic, and it’d been swelling like an air raid siren for several minutes now. It didn’t bode well.

Henry stared out the window and tried to think of something to say to divert the impending conversation. He soon realized he was too late.

“Got a meeting with her lawyer,” the man said to Henry’s complete horror, “Twelve years we were married. Twelve perfect years. Of course, she wasn’t a holy woman, no sir. Not by yards. She wasn’t even a particularly bright woman, for that matter. But man, she was a looker. Had a body that could raise the dead. Arrogance had its hands all over my loins the day I asked her to marry me. Biggest mistake of her life, she tells me.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Henry said, because it was apparently his turn.

“Now I have to meet with her lawyers,” the man pressed, “Didn’t get a lawyer, myself. Figured I already ruined her best twelve years with my arrogance, so what right do I have to win anything? Best just give her everything, you know? Walking away without a fight seemed the righteous path.”

Henry had nothing to add.

“You know what irony is, Henry?”

Henry looked at him. “Yeah, pretty sure I do.” Was he kidding?

“Well, here’s some irony for you. We had a great marriage before I found my Savior again. That’s when she turned into a different woman. I’m not saying she had the devil in her or anything, mind you. No sir, nothing so dramatic as that. I guess it’s just… well, I suppose there’s not much room in my heart for both Jesus and a woman, even though I love them both so desperately. That’s some irony there, isn’t it?”

More like stupidity, Henry thought as he looked out the window at the passing nothing. Nothing suddenly looked very appealing. He wished the damned headache would just finish him off. If it got bad enough, he could always throw himself out of the car as Plan B.

“Yes sir,” the man continued, “It’s probably the best thing for her. Well, no, scratch that. Truth is I know it’s the best thing for her. Probably best for me, too. In the long run, anyway. I can serve the Lord better with my hands free, if you catch my drift.”

He laughed at that.

Henry didn’t.

“Women are fleeting pleasures,” he persevered, nodding his great head in agreement, “A wife is for a lifetime, but Jesus is forever. I guess this is the best thing for all concerned.”

“Sounds like you’ve got it figured out,” Henry heard himself say. He immediately regretted it. What was he thinking? Was he actively engaging this insanity? He should just shut the hell up, nod politely at the appropriate times, smile occasionally, but say nothing.

“I guess I can’t say that’s a true statement, Henry,” the man pressed, “I don’t have it anything like figured our. I guess it’s destiny or fate, or maybe just the divine path, you know, something like that? Who am I to question the divine path?”

Divine path, Henry thought. Hilarious. “Maybe Jesus just wants you all to himself,” he said, sarcastically.

True to the day’s glorious path, the man abruptly veered the car over to the side of the road. Henry’s neck wrenched sickeningly as they slid to a stop in the dust and gravel. The man threw the shifter into park before they’d even stopped. The shoulder was steep and the car tilted precariously to Henry’s side. A dense cloud of brown dust lazily swelled away from them.

The huge man twisted toward Henry and braced his arm against Henry’s seat, so that he was perched precariously above him like a cartoon boulder that might come rolling down at any moment.

“What did you just say?” the man asked. He looked serious as cancer.

Henry pulled back into his door and braced himself for the beating that was clearly coming. “What… what do you mean?” he said quickly.

“You really think Jesus wants me all to himself? You think maybe it’s His plan? You think maybe He wants it this way? I’ve been thinking the same thing myself, but I thought it was just more of my sinful arrogance.”

Henry was horrified. The situation was quickly descending into a worst-case scenario. “Of course,” he said quickly, “I mean, sure. I mean, why wouldn’t he?” How the hell should he know?

A smile as wide as the Man in the Moon swelled through the man’s burgundy face. “It’s funny,” he said, “I’ve been looking for a sign. Something to guide me or counsel me, you know? But it hasn’t been coming, and man, I’ve been praying on it. I mean, I’m just asking for some direction here, some flag to let me know I’m going down the road He wants, you know? I’m buying newspapers just to read my horoscope. I’m flipping the motel TV channels looking for random strings of words that might part the curtains. I mean, I even thought about a sweat lodge, for sugar’s sake. Maybe sweat out a vision, you know? Like the Indians do? Maybe see the truth? But I can’t afford a retreat with the Indians. Heck, the best I can manage is to overheat the motel shower and sit on the toilet with my head wrapped in wet towels, but it just makes me feel like I’m suffocating.”

Henry could only stare at him. This had to be more delusion, more hysteria brought on by the heat and dehydration and this miserable hangover. It couldn’t be anything like real.

The preacher leaned closer. His face was engorged with blood. “But now I pick you up,” he whispered into Henry’s face, “A man whose pain burdens him like Jesus’s own cross, like Job suffering the boils, and you tell me it’s God’s will? My Lord, Henry! Don’t you see what this is? It’s exactly what I’ve been waiting for. You’re my sign. You’re the proof I’ve been searching for. You’re the direction I’ve prayed on, Henry! Jesus still loves me, and you’re my sign to prove it!”

Gravity and fear had Henry pressed back into his door so hard, he was certain it was going to give on him. His head throbbed to the rhythm of his pulse. He wasn’t sure he could draw enough breath to speak. He had to get the hell out of here, but his fear had him paralyzed.

“Do you think this is how He wants it, Henry?” The man was relentless. “Tell me the truth now. Are you my spiritual guide?”

Henry was crowded back as far into the seat as the door and window would allow. The man’s face filled his view like a total eclipse of life. His breath was hot and sour. Another few centimeters and they’d be doing the Eskimo nose kiss.

He tried to remember the lessons he’d been brainwashed with back during his years of imprisonment in Catholic school, but whether due to the hangover or his fear of the great head floating before him, nothing was forthcoming. Desperate, he improvised.

“Well… he… he is the Son of God, right?” Henry whispered into the great face.

“What?” the man said just a whisper from his face.

“And… and he’s all-seeing, right?” Henry continued, “I mean, he’s probably used to getting what he wants, wouldn’t you think? So… so who are we to argue?”

“What do you mean?”

Henry couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t focus. For just an instant, he felt like his stomach was going to end this engagement for him. And then he heard himself say, “Yes, Reverend. Yes, I am your sign.”

Time stopped. The world fell silent. And then the man’s eyes slowly filled with wet.

“You’re my sign,” the man whispered into his face, “Of course, you’re my sign. Me picking you up and all, I mean.” The man’s breath was thick as garlic butter. “You really think that’s true, don’t you, Henry?”

“Sure, of course,” Henry said into the mountainous face, “I mean, Jesus probably wants you all to himself. What do you need a wife for when you’ve got him, anyway?”

The preacher didn’t move. He only watched Henry from atop that mountain of flesh. At least, the right eye watched him. The left seemed to be studying the dashboard.

Henry felt smothered. He felt locked in a box barely large enough to hold him. His heart pounded so hard, he worried he was going to faint. Then, just as he was sure the mountain was going to pull him into a life-changing hug, it ended.

The man’s eyes overfilled with water, and his cheeks swelled up around them, and he slowly withdrew from Henry’s space and collapsed like a landslide into his own seat. He pulled a small, perfectly folded white hanky from his side pocket and buried his face into it just in time to catch his tears.

As Henry watched the man sob, he considered how refreshing a nice walk might be. He quickly probed the door’s side pocket for a map or atlas. If he could just get his bearings, he might be able to plot a nice hike toward home. He looked down at the floor, but the mat beneath his feet was covered in nothing but old fliers touting Holy Roller events around the wilds of Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado.

“I’m sorry, Henry,” he heard the preacher saying, “I’m so sorry. I… I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m an emotional teeter-totter these days.”

Henry looked down at his hands propped uselessly on his knees. It was exactly what the old bartender, what Clarence had prophesied. Penance. You’re getting exactly what you deserve. You’re a useless pulse, nothing more. Hell, you can’t even kill yourself properly.

“I’m sorry,” the man said on a sob, “Forgive me. I’m… I’m so sorry.”

Henry felt the guilt rush in like a hot, lifeless desert wind. Do something for once, he told himself. You can’t just sit here like a lifeless lump while the man blubbers. You should say something. Say anything. Make an effort for once in your useless life.

“I h-hate this,” the man cried into the white hanky, “Such a fool. I’ve thrown away everything I’ve ever loved.”

“No,” Henry heard himself say, “It’s… I don’t know… it’s okay, I guess. I mean, you loved her, right? You’ll always have that.” It sounded like so much crap even to him.

“You don’t even know me,” the preacher said as he blew his nose, “I’m pathetic. What kind of man cries in front of a total stranger?”

Henry watched him shaking before the steering wheel, bawling into that perfectly white handkerchief, and he felt a truckload of shame overrun him. He looked out into the endless nothing and considered where he could run, where he could hide, but in all those millions of rocks abandoned across the dirty red wasteland, none were ever going to be big enough to cover him.

“You… you ever been in love, Henry?”

The words landed like a kidney punch. Henry ordered himself not to look at the man, not to risk contact, but his eyes defied him. The man’s face was swollen and wet and sorry as hell. Henry felt his own eyes start to burn, but he fought it back, fought it like it was the devil himself come to haul him away. He couldn’t go there, not now, not here, not with this stranger out here in the middle of hell.

“Love is the world, Henry,” the man said, wiping his nose on his sleeve as if loathe to continue corrupting the purity of his hanky, “It isn’t like the rocks or dirt or any of that secular stuff that makes up the world; love is the world. Do you understand? It’s the matrix of every living thing. It’s the only thing that matters in this mortal life. Love completes us, Henry.”

Henry grabbed the armrest and threw his attention out into the desert. For a moment, he couldn’t get his breath. It felt like a burr had lodged itself in his throat. Zoe’s face unfolded in his head again. She glared at him, smiling that smile that says I hate you and I love hating you and I’ll always be here so I can keep hating you for the rest of time!

“You don’t have to answer,” he heard the big man saying somewhere in the distance, “I’m not sure how I know it, but it’s God’s pure truth: You lost someone special from your life, and I know you still love her. You wear your love on your sleeve just like I do. We’re exactly alike that way, you and me. Like kindred spirits.”

“We’re nothing alike,” Henry whispered. He locked his gaze on the heat devils dancing so mockingly across the scrub and struggled to keep his guts from exploding. “We’re nothing alike!”

“You loved her deeply. I can sense that in you. And you’re killing yourself over it. That’s why you’re out here, isn’t it? Because you love her more than life, and you feel lost in the endless night without her.”

The memories exploded through Henry’s mind. The first time he kissed her, her proposal on the beach, the wedding, the lost pregnancies, the affair.

The funeral.

He threw his forehead against the window. Traitorous tears burned flesh of his eyes. That hammer was beating against his skull again. He prayed he wouldn’t vomit.

Then, salvation. The engine turned over, the shifter clicked down a couple notches, and the car eased back onto the road. And as quickly as that, the Epic Outing resumed, and the pain of her memories lay moldering on the shoulder behind him like so much road kill.

They drove on in silence as thick as mud. Henry considered offering a final word of comfort but wrote it off as a monumentally stupid idea. He had no basis of reference to draw one from, anyway. He’d only end up complicating an already ridiculously complicated encounter. Instead, he watched the burning wasteland sliding past his window and wondered if this journey could possibly get any stranger.


SEVEN

HENRY HEARD A VOICE SPEAKING TO HIM FROM SOMEWHERE IN THE DISTANCE.

It was deep and insistent, though strangely indistinct, like distant thunder that has all the menace of a threatening storm but none of the imminence.

He couldn’t make out the words. Who would be talking to him? No one here knew him. Couldn’t they see he was—

“…feeling any better, son?”

He opened his eyes. It was dark, nighttime. He was in a car. He’d been asleep.

“Henry?”

Henry rolled his head to the side. A huge man sat in the driver’s seat, glowing eerily in the unnatural green radiance of the dashboard lights.

The news wasn’t anything like good. He was still on the road. The preacher man was still wedged behind the steering wheel, still as big as mountain.

“Alcohol won’t put out a fire,” the man said. He looked back at the road as he passed another car, then returned his attention to Henry. “Alcohol only makes a fire burn faster.”

“Yeah, I know,” Henry said. He hoped agreeing would pour water on this particular fire. His drinking was about the last thing he wanted to discuss, especially with a bible-thumper. Then he remembered Zoe and corrected that to read, the second to last thing he wanted to discuss.

“You’ve looked pretty miserable since I picked you up. I can’t imagine how it could possibly be worth it. You’re killing yourself, it’s as obvious as the nose on your face.”

“Forget about it,” Henry said, “It’s not how it looks.”

It was exactly how it looked. The alcohol was indeed killing him. Everything was proceeding according to plan.

He dropped his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. Every set of headlights zipping past felt like hot wires in his eyes.

“Nothing worse than a headache,” the man said, “Think I’d rather have a toothache.”

Henry pressed his palm against his forehead. “My friend, that is hands down the screwiest thing you’ve said yet. No sane person prefers a toothache over anything.”

“Call me Josho, son.”

“Whatever. And stop calling me son.”

“I’m going to have to veer north on fifteen. It’s coming up in another twenty miles.”

Henry rolled his head toward him. He couldn’t make sense of the words.

“Where do you have to go?” Josho said.

“Go?”

“Where are you heading? What’s your destination?”

“Oh. That. Uh… you can just drop me off at the next rest area, I guess. I have someone I can call.”

“You sure? It’s getting late. I don’t mind taking you somewhere closer. Have you got family around here?”

That joke never got old. Family? Hilarious.

“I’m glad to help you out, son.”

Henry hitched himself up higher in the seat and leaned his head against the window. It felt deliciously cool. “It’s okay,” he said into the night, “I appreciate the offer, but I’ll just make a call. You got me this far, I can’t ask for more.”

Besides, it was time to run. The man was violating the number one step in his project plan: No one gets in.

“All right,” the man said. Then he flipped on the overhead light, lifted the hatch to the compartment separating their seats, and began fishing around in it. As he dug through the gas receipts and candy bar wrappers, the car lurched over onto the shoulder at eighty miles per hour.

Henry grabbed the dashboard and shouted, “Josho! The road!”

They careened back, all the way over into the left lane before quickly finding their correction. The sound of an irate horn Doppler-shifted into silence behind them as they settled back into their lane.

“Sorry about that,” the man said with a girlish laugh.

“Dude!” Henry snapped, “My underwear’s dirty enough as it is.”

“Yeah, sorry,” the man said, still giggling.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“My wife got headaches. She took a lot of these. They seemed to help.” The man shook a plastic container. It was the universal brown of a prescription bottle and sounded like a baby rattle.

“What’s this?” Henry said as he accepted the container.

“Headache medicine, I guess.”

Henry held it up into the beams from the car behind them. He caught the words Acetaminophen and Hydrocodone on the label. “Vicodin?” he said, unable to believe what he read, “Are you serious? You’ve got Vicodin?”

“I told you, the wife got headaches,” the man said, glancing over at the bottle, “Bad ones. She said she only got them when she was with me. I never had reason to disbelieve her. I guess she didn’t need these anymore. Leaving me apparently cured her ills. Makes me think I should become a healer. All I have to do to cure the sinners is leave them.”

Henry looked down at the glorious bottle and searched for a word bigger than Epic. He pried the top off and held the bottle back up to the light streaming through the rear window. Hunkering down in a tactical position at the bottom of the bottle were plenty of little commandoes.

His luck just grew twenty times stronger.

“There’s a rest stop up here. Last one before my exit.”

“That’s fine,” Henry said as he popped two of the tablets in his mouth, “I appreciate what you’ve done for me.” He quickly chewed them, then washed the greasy powder down with the last of his thick poison.

“Call me Josho,” the man said, “And the feeling’s mutual. I know it probably sounds crazy to say so, but you helped me see my plight with greater clarity. It’s about the last thing I expected from a heathen.” He laughed at that.

“You’re welcome,” Henry said without laughing back.

“I think I may finally have my dots lined up again.”

“Well, I hope you can work it out,” Henry said carefully, “You seem like a decent guy. You probably deserve to be happy.”

He mentally kicked himself. What the hell was that? Did he actually mean that? Where along this long and winding road to hell had he started giving a shit about people he didn’t know? He sure as hell hoped it wasn’t habit forming.

A few minutes later, Josho pulled into a rest area and sidled up to the curb outside a large gray stucco restroom building squatting atop a low hill above them. Just outside the glass doors leading into the restrooms stood the obligatory flagpole with the obligatory floodlight washing up over it. The effect was grander than the building deserved.

Henry cocked back the door handle to leave, but a hand landed on his forearm before he could make his escape.

“Hold up,” Josho said, “I want to give you something.” He threw an arm back behind the passenger seat and began rummaging around.

The man’s moon-sized head was practically in Henry’s face again, yet for some reason, he didn’t mind so much this time. “I’m serious, Josh,” he said, “You don’t need to do anything for me. You’ve already done—”

“Josho.”

“Josho,” Henry said with a nod, “Right. Look, you’ve been better to me than I deserve. I want you to know I appreciate it.”

“Not to worry,” Josho grunted as he continued digging behind the seat, “I’m glad I could help. You have any money?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a twenty.”

Josho finally used the steering wheel to heave himself upright, dragging a small brown satchel around to his lap. He was short of breath. As he dug through it he said, “I think our meeting was destined, Henry.”

“Maybe so,” Henry said, “I don’t know.” Then he surprised himself by laughing. “I will say, though, you’ve been a person of interest on this misadventure. Hope it all works out with Jesus and the wife.”

“Yeah, thanks, Henry. I hope you make it right with your girl.”

Zoe’s face started to swell in Henry’s mind, but he wrestled her back.

“I’ll be praying for you, Henry.”

“Thanks, Josho,” Henry said, “I appreciate it.” To his surprise, he realized he actually did.

Then Josho leaned over and dumped a fistful of containers into Henry’s lap. “I think you’ll find these useful,” he said, grinning.

Henry looked down at the pile. “What’s this?”

“Stuff I’ve taken from the hotels I’ve stayed in. Soap, shampoo, toothbrush, things like that.”

Henry looked at him.

“Use them, Henry. You smell like shit.”


EIGHT

HENRY SHADED HIS EYES FROM THE METALLIC REST AREA LIGHTS AS HE STUDIED THE MAP OF NEW MEXICO.

It was sheltered behind the kiosk’s tired plexiglass armor. On the glass, just west of Albuquerque, was a blocky yellow arrow pointing at a spot on the map indicating where he stood. It read: You are EAT SHIT.

Though he’d never visited this desert wasteland before, he was pretty confident that EAT SHIT was not an official New Mexico Department of Transportation location. The words were hand-scrawled on the surface of the plexiglass in block-style blue lettering. He scratched a thumbnail against it and looked again.

You are EAT SHIT.

He scratched at it more vigorously, but it was evident the graffiti was there to stay. It’d remain on that public map, offending people’s sensibilities and insulting their values until the kiosk burned down or the state replaced the plexiglass. What the hell, he thought, wasn’t there enough routine, generic, day-to-day stupidity surrounding them already without the uneducated halfwits forcing their bullshit dysfunction into innocent people’s lives as well?

He slammed his fist against the plastic. It didn’t leave a mark. He looked around for a better weapon. There was a bit of landscaping outside the restroom. He walked over to it and sorted through some rocks until he found one just jaggy enough.

Who in the hell walks around with a blue Sharpie in their pocket anyway? And if you do go to the effort of carrying a blue Sharpie around with you, aren’t you inherently obligated to come up with something more profound, or at least wittier, than EAT SHIT before you use it? Why go to the trouble of carrying the damned pen if that’s the most original bit of homespun philosophy you can come up with? It didn’t make sense.

He walked back to the map.

You are EAT SHIT.

Genius! This country was quickly becoming a moron’s paradise.

He guarded his eyes and slammed the rock against the offensive spot. This time he was rewarded with a lovely pair of cracks that intersected precisely over the naughty words, just exactly as if the Lord himself had driven over from heaven and Xed them out himself.

There, mission accomplished! Now maybe it’d get replaced, thus sparing some passing widow or roving boy scout leader or impressionable tween the grievance of bearing witness to the grimmest of America’s moral turpitude. Another good deed to help offset his karmic debt. He had the feeling Josho would approve. He tossed the rock into the shrubs.

He traced the line of Interstate 40 west under the cracks, across New Mexico and into Arizona. And then he traced the route again. And again. Much to his surprise and delight, his ride with Josho had taken him three hours in completely the wrong direction.

The revelation left him speechless. This outing simply kept getting better. It was his Magnum Opus, a monument to his self-immolation. “You’re a regular rocket surgeon,” he whispered to himself, “Seriously brilliant. You should buy yourself a trophy.”

“Do you need a lift to a shelter?”

Henry nearly jumped out of his skin.

He wheeled around to find a middle-aged Hispanic woman in a lavender pantsuit standing immediately behind him. Her hair was tied back so tightly, he was inclined to wince in sympathy for it. Shadows cast by the mercury light above and behind her obscured the details of her features. Secured on a long strap over her left shoulder was a shiny square purse that’d somehow teleported out of the seventies. It was the size of a detergent box and so white it seemed to glow of its own accord.

“Do you have problems with your hearing?” she said. Her tone implied she already had the answer.

He didn’t know how to reply to that. Judging by the woman’s stiff posture and puritan-grade scowl, he was confident none of the possible responses sparking through his head was the right one.

“I asked you a question, sir,” she said sternly.

“I’m sorry?” he said, more to stall than outwit her.

“Do. You. Need. A lift? To a shelter or elsewhere? I’m not inclined to ask again.”

“A shelter?” he said, “Do I look like I need—”

He stopped and looked down at his attire. The dry cleaner’s starch had pretty much bailed on what was left of his  tattered dress shirt. And Josho’s soap hadn’t so much cleaned the vomit stain out of his slacks as enhanced its sheen.

He drew a hand down his shirt to smooth it. He surprised himself by blushing. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said, “I believe we’re actually pretty well set here. But, uh… but, thanks all the same. I guess.”

The woman stepped closer, turning just so that her features drifted into the flood of the stark mercury light. She wore a harsh expression that was miles too close to the nuns of his youth. One hand fortified the crisp white purse strap running down her shoulder, while the other was mounted securely against her hip. Her gaze was locked on him like a bobcat waiting for a rabbit to run.

“Do I look like a fool?” she said seriously.

“Mm… no,” he said carefully, “Then again, I just met you, so I’m not sure I’m really the most qualified person to—”

“You cannot lie to me, young man, so it’ll save you a great deal of energy if you simply and sincerely resolve yourself to not attempt it.”

He swallowed. Hard. “Roger that,” he said, for lack of anything smarter.

“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” Her tone was efficiently administrative.

“Sure. I mean, of course I do.” He’d never had so intense an urge to run away from anyone before in his life.

“Do you have transportation?” she pressed.

“Yes, obviously,” he said, faking a laugh, “It’s right over there.” He hiked a thumb off toward the parking lot.

She stepped a bit closer. “What did I just tell you about lying to me?”

He couldn’t find his voice. She scared the hell out of him.

“Lying is a sin, sir. A sin and a complete waste of energy.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“Are you trying to be funny?”

He studied her for a beat or two. It was becoming rapidly clear that this woman was not one to screw with. This one ate her young. If he was ever inclined to take the route of feigned respect, this was probably the time

“Well?” she said sharply, “Do you believe yourself in possession of a particularly sharp wit? That you’re some kind of funnyman, perhaps?”

“No, ma’am,” he said carefully, “Actually… I’m just trying not to get hurt.”

They looked at each other for a time as the highway buzzed in the background. It sounded like the cars were speeding up as they passed the rest area, like maybe they were trying to get by this place as quickly as possible because they knew the Agent of Honor was lurking inside.

“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” she asked again.

He just looked at her. He didn’t know which response would result in the least amount of pain. He could feel her eyes dissecting his intentions like a pair of lasers.

“I don’t find your stubbornness any cuter than your wit,” she said, “Or are you just having trouble understanding me?”

“No, ma’am. I understand you fine.”

“Then why do you refuse to answer?”

“Well, to be honest… you make me a little nervous.”

She watched him for a moment. Her expression might even have softened a bit, though he couldn’t be certain.

Finally, she began digging through her white purse, which was still so bright against the shadows he had to squint to look directly at it. “My name is Mrs. Pena,” she said, “I’m a Bernalillo County Social Worker. I also volunteer at several homeless shelters. I can arrange a ride to the nearest one for you.” She pulled an old-school cell phone from her purse and flipped it open smartly. “You’ll be safe there. Perhaps you can get yourself cleaned up.”

“What are you doing?” he said.

“You look like you could use some food,” she said as she began pressing numbers into the phone, “When did you last eat? And please know that wine does not count as food, even if it is bred from grapes.”

“Seriously,” he said, “What… what are you doing with the phone?”

“I’m calling the New Mexico State Police to get you a ride.”

“What? No!” he said quickly, “Are you crazy? Don’t—”

Her eyes threw solar flares at him. “What did you say to me?”

“Nothing! I mean, I didn’t mean literally crazy. I meant… please, look, you don’t have to do this!”

She put the phone to her ear. “It’s not a problem, sir. I’m happy to help.” She didn’t look like she was.

“No!” Henry said, waving his hands before her, “Please! I’m not homeless. I swear it! I’m just traveling. I’m passing through on my way to my home in California, and I ran into some troubles, nothing more. Please, hang up. Please! I don’t need the trouble!”

She watched him with the phone to her ear for what seemed like the longest moment of his life. And then, much to his surprise and relief, she slowly pulled it away and flipped it shut.

“Thank you,” he said, “God, thank you. I’m just traveling, I promise you. I just… I’m taking a road trip, nothing more. I got a little wild last night, which explains my appearance, but I don’t need a place to stay, and I don’t mean anyone any trouble. I’m not homeless, I give you my word.”

“You can put your hands down now, sir.”

He realized he was still holding his palms up at her. He threw them behind his back. “Sorry,” he said quickly. Then he added, “Thank you,” as an afterthought.

After another prolonged examination with her laser eyes, she said, “I’m going to ask you a question.” She held the closed phone up between them like it was the microphone to a lie detector. “If I am dissatisfied with your response, I promise you I will place the call to the state police. There are vagrancy laws in this state, after all. Do you understand me?”

Henry didn’t know what to make of this. The day behind him was already one for the books, but this moment felt like a psychotic episode. Maybe it was the Vicodin, maybe it was the hangover, maybe he’d finally lost his mind. He had the strangest urge to look around for cameras.

“Are you fleeing the law, sir?”

Should’ve seen that one coming. “No, ma’am,” he said, “I’ve never even been arrested. Had a speeding ticket once, but that was years ago.”

Her eyes reflected doubt.

“I swear it, Mrs. Pena,” he said urgently, “It’s the absolute truth, so help me Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.”

Her lips pursed just a bit at that. She was studying him too closely. After what seemed like days, she nodded and dropped her phone back in her purse.

“All right,” she said, still watching him, “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. This time.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

 “Don’t make me regret it.”

“I won’t. I’ve just finished up the strangest goddamn day of my—”

She threw him a glare that left a mark.

 “Sorry!” he said quickly, probably too quickly, “I don’t mean to offend.”

“Well, you personally don’t, but your language most certainly does.”

“I’m sorry. Seriously, I don’t want any trouble. I’m just working my way home. That’s all of it. I’m not here to bother anyone. I’m not a threat to society. I just wanted to get cleaned up a bit.”

She gave him a cursory examination, then said, “I see.”

They again stood looking at each other in the suffocating light of the mercury lamp. The silence was murder. He wanted to leave but didn’t know how. She had a queer kind of grip on him. Desperate to fill the void with something, anything, he glanced around at the restrooms and vending area, and said, “Do you have an office here or something?”

“Is that sarcasm?”

His heart nearly kicked its way out of its cage. “No, ma’am!”

“I’m not sure I like your tone,” she said. He had the feeling she used that line a lot.

“I meant no disrespect,” he said, “I just meant… well, isn’t it a little odd to approach a strange man at a rest area and ask him if he needs a ride?” He immediately regretted the question.

Her expression shifted a bit at that. “What are you implying?” she said.

“What? Nothing! I mean… not like that. It’s just, you know, a little odd. I mean, from where I’m standing and all.”

She looked momentarily indignant but quickly recovered. “I take my work seriously,” she said, pressing a hand alongside her head, as if she could somehow make her hair even tighter, “I see a person in need, I act on it. I see another who may be a threat to passersby, and I do the same. It’s in my nature. It’s also my responsibility.”

“I see.” He didn’t.

“I had a site visit this evening. I was on my way home and needed to stop to…” She flushed a bit, then simply shrugged.

Once again, they stood looking at each other in the atomic silence. Moths were tried to kill themselves against the buzzing mercury light above them. Cars growled along the highway beyond the rest area. Somewhere off in the night, a coyote screamed.

Then she looked up at him, and said, “When was the last time you ate?”

He looked down at his feet and drew his hair back across his head. It was still wet from washing it. He sifted back through the last twenty-four hours. He remembered eating lunch at his desk yesterday, but pretty much everything after ten p.m. was in hiding.

“I asked you a question, sir.”

“I honestly don’t know, ma’am.” He fished around in his pocket, then pulled out the tortured twenty. “I’ve got cash but no change for the vending. No one seems interested in breaking it for me. I’ve asked, but… well, people pretty much take a wide berth when they see me coming.”

“I’m not surprised,” she said, “You smell like shit.”

Henry startled himself by laughing. “Yes,” he said, shaking his head, “Yes, I do. Although, for the record, I did wash up. It just didn’t seem to take.”

He saw her mouth twitch at that. It was barely perceptible and passed quicker than a wink, but a smile did tease her.

He stretched the twenty tautly between his fingers. “Mrs. Pena,” he said, smiling at her, “If you could somehow manage to break this, I can get a candy bar or a bag of chips. I don’t need exact change, just a couple bucks. You can keep the difference.”

“Do I look like I need your change, sir?”

“No. I mean… that’s not what I meant. I just… well, I’m a little desperate, is all.”

Mrs. Pena’s laser eyes burned into the bill held up before her. Then they returned their fire to him. “I can’t help you, sir,” she said.

The bill drifted lower. “I see,” he said, nodding, “Sure. No problem. I understand. Thanks anyway.”

“What’s your name, sir?”

“Um…”

“You don’t know?”

“Of course, I know,” he said, “It’s Henry, actually.”

“You don’t seem confident of that.”

“No, it’s definitely Henry.”

“Are you an honest man, Henry?”

“What?”

“Which part didn’t you understand? The words? Or their context in the question?”

Henry again suspected there was no right answer. “I am an honest man,” he said, “For the most part.”

Her brow lifted.

“I mean, I am one hundred per cent an honest man so far as my relationship with you is concerned.” Nice recovery.

Her eyes were fierce, her gaze physical. He was sure she was going to either leave, or call the police and then leave. Finally, she turned away, and he’d never felt more thankful for any human act in his entire life.

But then, just as he was about to run as far away as possible, he heard her say, “Follow me, Henry.”

Henry had no intention of complying, yet he found himself reflexively doing exactly as he was told. He grabbed his gear, a soiled brown paper bag with the supplies Josho had donated to his cause and followed her through the night to her car. It was parked down at the end of a long line of cement stairs in the first stall after the handicap spaces directly beneath the flood of another mercury security light. She was a prudent woman, Mrs. Pena.

When they were a dozen paces from the car, she turned and threw a hand up at him. “Stay there,” she said, pointing at a picnic table sitting just off the sidewalk. When she seemed confident he’d comply, she stepped off the curb and walked to her car.

A few moments later, she returned carrying what looked like a pizza box and a couple dark plastic bottles.


NINE

HENRY STUFFED THE LAST BIT OF PIZZA CRUST INTO HIS MOUTH.

He was shocked at how hungry he’d actually been. In fact, it must’ve been the hungriest he’d ever been in his life, for somehow, over the course of three slices of stale pizza, he’d divulged all the details of his outing to this enigma entitled Mrs. Pena.

The cap hissed dramatically as Mrs. Pena twisted it off a sweating cola. She handed the bottle to him.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

The soda was off-brand and the temperature of warm piss, but he didn’t think he’d ever appreciated a drink so much in his life. He put the bottle down on the picnic table and released a burp before he even saw it coming.

He laughed at that. “My apologies,” he said, grinning at her, “It’s just so good. Best soda I ever had, I swear. Is that from Sam’s Club? I’ve never been there, but man, if their soda is that good, I guess I’m missing something.”

She didn’t reply, and she didn’t break her gaze. Henry tried to remember if he’d even seen her blink since she jumped him back at the map. He looked at the last lonely slice of pizza slowly dying in the grease-stained box but decided against it.

“What are you going to do tonight?” she said, “You look like something Satan coughed up.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“It wasn’t a compliment, Henry.”

“I know, Mrs. Pena,” he said through his food, “I was being… never mind, doesn’t matter.”

“Answer the question.”

He continued chewing for a moment, but her gaze was unrelenting. The last thing he wanted to do was piss her off, so he swallowed the bite unfinished. “I’m going to head home,” he said, “Back to Riverside.” He took another drink.

“Hitchhiking.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Have you reported your missing car to the police?”

“Of which state?”

“Does it look like your cutting wit amuses me, Henry?”

He was surprised to feel himself blush again.

“You need to report your car,” she said again.

“I will. The very moment I remember where and how I lost it.”

“You’d do well to consider AA. I can find a meeting for you near where you live.”

“I’m not an alcoholic.”

“Where did you say your car was?”

He looked down at the soda bottle playing between his hands. He knew this game. Once again, there was no correct answer. “I’m not an alcoholic,” he said again. His waning conviction disappointed him.

She put a hand on his arm. “You blacked out, Henry.”

“I know.”

“You don’t think that’s a problem?”

“I’m not an alcoholic,” he said, looking at her. He tried to press his gaze back as hard as he was receiving it, but he was a Pee Wee softball player pitching against a major league hitter.

“Try to convince me,” she said, taking a drink from her own cola.

Henry knew there was no bluffing with this one. Try to bullshit her, and she’d eat him alive. Best just to lay it all out there and hope for the best.

“I’m guess I’m what they call a binge drinker,” he said, trying not to look away from her, “It’s my weekend ritual, my escape plan. I grab my first drink on the way home from work Friday, and I finish my last one a few minutes before passing out Sunday night. What happens in between is pretty much mayhem. But nothing during the week. Not even a beer and a shot. Not a sip. I’m completely sober during the workweek.”

She watched him. And she waited.

When her lasers finally became too much for him, he looked down at the cola in his hand. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said softly, “But you don’t understand. And frankly, there’s no way you ever can. I mean no offense by that.”

“What are you hiding from, Henry?”

He told himself not to, but he found himself looking up at her anyway.

“What’s so terrible that you have to hide from it on the weekends?” she pressed, “I understand how work can consume a soul. I’ve used it myself for the same purpose. It keeps you occupied during working days and, if you work hard enough, leaves you too tired to care at night. But what happens on the weekends? What do you hide from when the computers are off, and the business is closed, and there’s nothing left to distract you? What drives you to climb into a bottle to hide away from your life? Are chaos and turmoil your only shields on the weekends?”

He felt the tremors starting up again. The door to the forbidden cell was beginning to rattle. Zoe’s face rose up from the fog in his mind, but he pressed a hand to his eyes and wrestled it back. He was startled to discover his palm was sweating. He couldn’t believe it. He never sweated. Never.

“Talk to me, Henry.”

“It’s complicated,” he said at last.

Once again, she probed him with those laser eyes. He could almost feel her thoughts bullying their way into his mind. “I can see that something’s chasing you, Henry. Something pretty scary, I would expect.”

His throat felt tight. He couldn’t possibly respond. It was too slippery a slope. If he started down that road, he might never come back. Instead, he hid behind his hand as he pretended to rub his forehead. A gentle breeze brought on the scent of funeral flowers. Somewhere in the distance, he heard her laughing.

“Some things can’t be run away from,” he heard Mrs. Pena say, “Some things have to be talked through, no matter how terrifying they are. You can’t carry it alone, Henry. You need someone to help you with that load.”

He wanted to look at her, wanted to tell her she didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. He wanted to show her the horror chasing him, see if she thought talking was such a good weapon then. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He could barely breathe.

“Have you talked to your Mother about it?”

It took him a moment to digest the words. The heat in his eyes retreated. He lowered his hand and looked at her. “What did you say?”

Her face might as well have been chiseled stone; he couldn’t read a word behind it. “Have you talked to your Mother about it?” she said again.

He shrugged and looked away. “I… I should get going.” He suddenly felt like a sheep about to be shorn. “I appreciate what you’ve—”

“Henry, have you talked to your Mother about this? About what scares you? About what makes you run away from your life with such drama?”

He realized he was chewing his lip and stopped it. “My mother’s gone, ma’am,” he said plainly, “Died in a car wreck more than a few years ago.”

To his shock and awe, Mrs. Pena actually smiled at him. “Mothers are never gone, Henry. Not ever. They’re always with you, even after they’ve crossed.”

He stood up. She didn’t.

“It’s all right, Henry,” she said, looking up at him. She still held her smile, though the zest was fading from it now. He expected that the half-life of a smile parked on that face was probably pretty short.

It was time to go. “Thanks for the pizza,” he said, “And for the—”

“You can work through this in time,” she said with some force, “It may not be a fast process, and it won’t be a painless one, but there’s nothing in this life you can’t beat. You need to start by talking to your Mother. Talking to her will file the edge off the blade. It’ll make it easier to take it further, to get the real help you need.”

He couldn’t pull away from her. It was as if he were locked in some unnatural tractor beam. “I don’t… I don’t know what…” The words died on his tongue. He had no idea what to say to this. He just knew he had to get away from her.

“It’s going to be all right, Henry. I won’t put any more pressure on you. You can go now.”

Henry grabbed his gear. He wasn’t sure what had just happened. She’d seen his dungeon. She recognized his forbidden cell. She knew there was something terrible inside it, something that frightened him to death. She’d seen it, analyzed it, shown him how to fight it, and then she’d pulled back from it. She’d told him she cared and left it at that, and in that moment, he could have hugged her for it.

“You can’t hide from your fears,” she said to him, “Not for long. Eventually you have to look at them. Eventually you’ll have to show them to someone else. They never go away completely, but if you share them with someone you trust, they can be neutralized. You need to talk them out. If you don’t, you’ll be running from them for the rest of time. I know you see that.”

“I do,” he whispered, “But I’m… I’m not ready. Not yet. Maybe not ever.” Probably not ever.

“Start with your Mother, Henry. Talk to your Mother.”

“Mrs. Pena, I told you, my mother’s gone. She’s dead.”

Her odd smiled blossomed again, and in the unnatural light of that mercury light, he thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

She again put her hand on his arm. Her touch was surprisingly tender and warm. “I told you, Henry,” she said carefully, “Your Mother’s never gone. Now, you go home. You finish this abusive outing. You get some rest. And then you go talk to her.”

“I imagine you’re a good mother,” he said. The words took him by complete surprise. What the hell was that?

Her eyes drifted off toward the highway traffic. “A good mother,” she said with a whisper of a laugh, “Yes, I suppose I was. In my own way.”

Was?

“What do you mean?” he said carefully.

She seemed to be studying the passing cars. He could see her eyes systematically lock on one and follow it until it was out of sight, then track back and lock on another. After a few passes, she looked up at him. “I lost her,” she whispered, “It was… it was many years ago.”

Henry watched her for a moment. She was a paradox, this one. She had the shell of a field sergeant and the heart of a bird, and he didn’t think he’d ever trusted anyone in his life as much as he did her right here in this moment. She’d lost a child, and that’s why she wore the armor, because she couldn’t ever go through that pain again.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Talk to your Mother, Henry.”

“I will,” he whispered back. He felt the heat rising behind his eyes again, but this time he didn’t try to fight it.

“Talk to your Mother, Henry.”

“I… I will.”

“Talk to her before you kill yourself.”

“I will. I promise.”


TEN

HENRY SAT ON THE GUARDRAIL AT THE TOP OF THE ONRAMP THUMBING FOR RIDES WITH ABSOLUTELY NO ENTHUSIASM.

Another mercury light flickered half-heartedly from its perch atop an industrial steel pole a mile above him. Seemed neither of them were particularly into their jobs tonight.

He glanced at his watch only to find a bare wrist. He’d made the same stupid move a dozen times today and seemed incapable of learning from the results. His watch had taken its leave of him. It was probably in a better place, probably sharing the good company of his wallet, belt, jacket, tie, and socks.

Judging by the juxtaposition of the moon, stars, and streetlamp, he guessed it to be somewhere in the vicinity of ten or eleven. By his reckoning, Mrs. Pena had left his company around seven o’clock that evening. He’d spent the next half hour walking from the rest area to the next exit just so he could turn around and start hitchhiking west. That meant he’d been sitting here on this miserable on-ramp for at least a solid three and a half fruitless hours now.

His mind was a slowly spinning vat of sludge. He wanted nothing more than to bury himself in the dirt and sleep. He’d seriously considered walking back to the rest area and hunkering down behind the locked door of a toilet stall for a few hours. But this was the Wild, Wild West, after all, and the fear of patrolling sheriffs and drifting outlaws gave the plan a safety rating of ‘Inadvisable’. At best.

So here he sat.

And sat.

He dragged the hair back from his face and sighed. At least he was clean. Well… cleaner. The soaps provided by Josho had helped a bit. And even if they hadn’t, at least he’d tried. Anyway, that was his story, and he was sticking to it.

Mrs. Pena’s pizza, God Bless Her Soul, had done wonders to bring him back to a shadow of his former self. That bit of food and the lukewarm cola had done more to reverse his headache than even the Vicodin. In fact, he hadn’t taken anymore V’s since those first two back in the Josho Phase of this ridiculous dream.

Still, as he thought about it, he wondered if it was the pizza at all. Mrs. Pena was one hell of a strange bird. She was uptight, ridiculously serious, and completely self-righteous. And she was better at his game than he was. She’d actually managed to get him to talk. A little, anyway. And not just because she was so damned intimidating, either. He’d liked talking to her, though he’d vehemently deny it if asked publicly. If they’d been in a different time and a better venue, he probably would’ve ended up telling her everything. He wondered how things might have worked out if he’d known her back when…

He stood up and dug her card out of his pocket. He turned and held it up to the trembling light.

Ximena J. Pena, MSW.

Healthcare for the Homeless

(505) 242-4...

“Ximena,” he read out loud, “Hee may nya.”

It was an interesting first name. He liked the way it somersaulted off his tongue. “I’m Hee may nya. Hee may nya J. Pay nya.”

He laughed at that. The whole thing still seemed surreal, like a dream that clings long after you wake, and the images have faded, and all you’re left with is the good vibes.

This small, Hispanic woman with her lavender pantsuit, and that optimistically white purse, and those laser eyes was the very last person on this miserable planet he’d ever expected to take an interest in him. But she’d knocked him clean on his ass, hadn’t she? Then she’d pulled him up from the dirt and yelled at him hard enough to hear. Despite his sincerest efforts to resist, she’d somehow made contact.

“Mrs. Ximena J. Pena,” he said. And then he tucked the card back into his pocket. He had the feeling he might be using it someday.


ELEVEN

HENRY WAS STILL PARKED ON THE GUARDRAIL.

He sat doubled forward with his face in his hands, nearly at the cusp of sleep, when the dirty yellow conversion van roared past. It barreled another fifty yards down the on-ramp before the brake lights flared. It stopped like the driver wasn’t in on the plan. Then the reverse lights popped on, and it was suddenly weaving back at him.

He rolled backward off the guardrail just in time to avoid losing a leg. He landed on his back in the gravel on the other side. The fender of the van screeched along the railing before jerking to a stop just a few yards past him.

Henry scrambled to his knees and hunkered down behind the thick post supporting the heavy metal rail. For just an instant, he envisioned himself enslaved as a meth lab tech somewhere in deepest, darkest New Mexico. It wouldn’t exactly be undeserved.

For several beats, the van only sat there, engine running, music thumping, a small orange spot glowing behind the dark windshield. Then the orange dot flared, and the gears shifted, and the van eased slowly forward. The fender and side door screeched mournfully as they slid free of the guardrail.

It stopped directly in front of him, so close he could’ve reached out and touched the fresh scar running along the side panel. The vibrations of the stereo pumped against his chest even through the closed door. His panic was just cresting when the van abruptly fell silent.

He was planning his retreat as the side door slid open. A girl squatted just inside, hand locked on the roof of the open hatch like she was ushering skydivers out into wild blue yonder. She was dressed in Desert Storm camo pants, a tight wifebeater that glowed neon white in the streetlight, and a twisted mess of shoulder-length hair that was the color of a paint store accident.

“Hey,” she said, grinning around a cigarette.

“Hey,” he said back.

“How’s it going?” She pulled the cigarette from her mouth.

“Well, you know… pretty good. Just sitting here enjoying the evening.”

“Did you lose something back there?” she said, “Or are you just hiding?”

He realized he was still hunkered down behind the guardrail. He stood up and slipped his hands in his pockets. “No,” he said, “Not hiding so much as taking cover.”

She laughed. “Yeah, sorry about that. Nancy has balance issues.”

“Balance issues?”

“He favors the accelerator at the expense of the brake. No balance. Get it?”

“Oh, sure. I get it.” He didn’t.

Still gripping the inside top of the door with one hand, she leaned a bit further out of the van and half-cupped her mouth toward him, saying in apparent confidence, “Truth is, he’s just a lousy driver when he’s stoned. But he’s sensitive about it, so...” She raised a finger to her lips.

“Wait,” Henry said, “You said the driver’s name was Nancy.”

“Yeah, I did,” she said back, “Because, coincidentally, that’s what it is.”

Henry thought about that. “But you just said ‘he’.”

“Look, Superman,” she said, smiling wider, “You want to discuss gender identity at one in the morning, or do you want a ride? Because it’s late, and we really need to hit the road.”

She had the greenest eyes he’d ever seen. They simmered against a pleasant face that looked like someone actually lived there. And if that weren’t incentive enough, he figured just about anyplace else on earth had to be better than this goddamned on-ramp.

“Hold on,” he said, “Let me get my gear.”

He grabbed his paper bag and stepped over the guardrail. The girl held a hand out to him. For an instant, he only looked at it, not exactly sure what to do. The company of females was about the last item on his dark agenda.

“The clock’s ticking, Superman,” she said seriously, “You coming or not?”

With that, he accepted her offer. He landed in the back of the van amid a tangled pile of sleeping bags.

She flipped her cigarette butt out into the night, then grabbed the door handle. As the door hammered shut, she folded back into the darkness until all he could see was the gleam of her smile.

“Hit it, Nancy,” she called to the front.

“I hear and obey,” someone responded from the front. The voice was disturbingly deep. Henry envisioned breasts and a hairy back.

He readjusted his position in the sleeping bags and found a bare foot among the folds. It slipped out from the covers and glided to rest across his lap. It was too far away to be the girl’s.

“Say hello to Bridget,” the girl said, laughing, “She won’t bite, I promise.”

Someone groaned beneath the sleeping bags. A moment later, the bare foot disappeared into the matting of sleeping bags like a snake slipping away into the grass.

“Hello, Bridget,” he said dutifully.

“And my name’s Alice,” the girl said.

He looked over at her white smile simmering against the shadows on the other side of the van. “Hello Alice,” he said, “My name’s Henry.”

“Henery,” she repeated, pronouncing it like it had three syllables. “You know you smell like shit, right, Henery?”

Once again, he felt himself blush. “Yeah, I tried to wash up at the rest area,” he said, hoping the embarrassment didn’t show, “But the faucets don’t stay on in there. Have to keep hitting them, you know? Conserving water, I guess. It’s a real pain in the…” He stopped without know why.

“I know,” Alice said, “It’s despairingly frustrating. Whoever designed them should be publicly beaten.”

He could practically feel the heat of her smile.

“Guess all I can do is apologize up front,” he said, “I mean… for my appearance and all. This isn’t normal for me or anything. Didn’t expect to be in the company of others. I’m actually in the process of killing myself, but the plan’s just not going that well.”

“Lands sakes, Henery. Life happens.”

“I need a serious bath and a change of clothes,” he said anyway.

“In that case, you definitely chose the right van.” He heard more than saw her settle back into the sleeping bags.

“What do you mean?” he said.

“I really need to get some sleep now.”

“Sorry about the smell,” he said, “I’m not—”

“Don’t beat it to death, Henery. We’ll have you fixed up soon enough.”

“Right. I mean… thanks.”

“Try to sleep now. Looks like you could use it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Henery?”

“Yes?”

“Did you just call me ‘ma’am’?”

Henry tensed at that, though he wasn’t sure why. Then he said, “Well, I sure as hell hope not.”

“Screw hope, Superman. Just pray it never happens again. Not ever again.”

As the van accelerated onto the highway, Henry began to harbor doubts. Who picked up shit-smelling strangers at rest areas in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? He thought about all the B-rated horror films he’d seen in his life, about all the victims he’d seen walk stupidly into the villain’s design despite the screamed warnings of the audience. And as he did, he had a feeling he should be a lot more worried than he was.


TWELVE

HENRY STOOD AT THE STAGE WING WAITING HIS TURN.

It was dark here behind the curtains, but the stage just beyond was practically on fire. The orchestra played some odd tune whose refrain kept repeating over and over like a skipping record. They never seemed to get past it to the song itself.

“You’re on next Henry!” someone yelled from the shadows.

Henry was ready. He knew the song. He was ready to sing it for her at last. He needed to sing it so he could finally escape. He needed her to hear him singing it so she’d know how much he loved her before he left.

The orchestra finally stopped. There was a long pause broken only by a few random notes squawked from the horns like an afterthought.

And then, with all the requisite drama, the music started up again. It was the song. It was her song.

“You’re on, Henry!”

Henry straightened his tie and smoothed his jacket, then began slowly walking for the stage. He could finally finish it now. He could sing his song for her and then everything would be right again, and he could walk away a free man at last.

But a hand landed on his shoulder like a grappling hook. A deep voice behind him said, “I’ve got this one, kid.”

The man shoved past him, making confidently for the stage. He was dressed in a perfect black tuxedo and sparkling blue-steel hair.

“Wait,” Henry called to him, “This is my song.”

The man didn’t even look back. He just kept walking.

This couldn’t be right. He needed to stop the man, but his legs refused to move. He realized he was now wearing dirty jeans and a yellowing tee shirt. What the hell was this? He had to sing for her. Why was this happening?

The man stopped at the edge of the stage and lit a cigarette. Then he slowly turned back toward Henry. As the smoke lazily parted, Henry saw that it was Dean again. He held a rocks glass filled with ice and amber fluid.

“Go get a shower, pally,” Dean said, flashing him a grin that was too charming by miles, “I’ve got this one.”

“What?” Henry said, “Wait, what are you doing? This is my song. I’m need to sing it for her.”

“No, Henry,” Dean said on a stream of smoke. His voice seemed higher than it should be. “This job’s bigger than you. I’ve got it. You just run along now. Go wait in the bar.”

“But, Dean—”

“Take a break, kid. Time to buck up. This is how it’s supposed to be. This was always how it was supposed to be.”

And just like that, Dean was on the stage and crooning Henry’s song into the mic as the audience screamed.

Henry couldn’t do anything but stand there and watch. He wanted to go out there and take that mic away, wanted to shove Dean off the stage and sing his song for her at last. But he didn’t. Why didn’t he?

The smell of funeral flowers suddenly choked the air. “It’s all right, Henry,” a woman’s voice whispered.

He turned toward the scent. It was her, Zoe. She was dressed in a formal, off-white dress. Her black hair spilled carelessly down over her breasts. Her smile was perfection.

“Zoe,” he whispered, “I was supposed to sing for you.”

She slipped a hand alongside his cheek and smiled up at him. “You’ve got it wrong, honey,” she said, “My name is Patty.”

“Patty? No, it’s Zoe.”

“No, Henry. It never was. You never knew my name, not my real name.”

He looked out at Dean singing his song on the stage. The story was wrong, it was all wrong!

“Go away now, Henry,” Zoe whispered, as she slipped past him, “Dean needs me on stage.”

Henry watched her slinking away from him. “Why are you doing this?”

“Why did I do anything, Henry?” she said without stopping and without looking back, “Because of you. It was all because of you.”

“But it’s my song, Zoe. I’m supposed to sing it for you.”

Zoe stopped just before the stage entrance. Then she slowly turned and flashed him the sweetest smile of his life. “I know, Henry,” she whispered, “But Dean just sings it so much better. They all did, really. Every single one of them.”

Henry lurched upright. His heart kicked at his ribs. He slammed the floor with his fist. The goddamned dream again.

He reached for his drink, but it wasn’t there.

He shoved the hair back from his face and steadied his breathing. He looked out into the world. He wasn’t sure where he was. It was early dawn. It was cold. The world was still rife with shadows, though the sky was beginning to lighten.

The bloody dream! He grabbed his face. Why couldn’t he let it go? Why couldn’t he let her go?

The voice answered him just as it always did, just as it had for four long, miserable years now. You know why, it whispered, because you’re a murderer. Because you don’t deserve to let me go.

He thought about the song. Why couldn’t he ever remember what it was? In the dream, he was always ready to sing it for her, despite the fact he could never manage to pull it off. It wasn’t always Dean, though he was in the worst ones. Sometimes it was Sinatra, sometimes Englebert. Once it was even Boy George. That one haunted him a while!

Regardless of how it played out, Zoe was always there. She was always making excuses for them, always babbling on about how they could sing it so much better than he could. She always had a different name, too, and it made no more sense this morning than it had in the hundreds of other mornings he awakened to it.

Zoe!

He dropped back into the bedding. His breathing was thankfully slowing now, though Zoe’s face still hovered stubbornly in his mind. He focused on her smile, on the way her eyes crinkled when she laughed. He hated the fucking dream! It always brought him back to this. To her.


THIRTEEN

HENRY WOKE TO THE SOUNDS OF BIRDS AND RUNNING WATER.

He lay inside a hollow conversion van under a heap of sleeping bags. But this time he knew exactly where he was. Zoe’s face still simmered in his mind, at once both vibrant and ghostly, but he willed it away. He couldn’t deal with it, not now, not here.

And then he remembered Alice.

He sat up and rubbed the back of his skull. His epic headache had dulled to a mere shadow of its former self, praise the Lord!

He sheltered his eyes against the sunlight pouring in through the van’s open side door. As his eyes adapted to the brilliant morning light, he surveyed his surroundings. This was the same van that picked him up last night, right? It was last night, wasn’t it? Why did it seem like years ago?

A huge cooler squatted behind the driver’s seat. Some folding chairs hung on the wall above him. The rear of the van was barricaded with a mess of boxes and carry-on bags. A couple duffel bags were scattered through the quagmire of tangled sleeping bags, apparently doubling for pillows. A clothes rope ran across the length of the ceiling, draped in shorts, tee shirts, some girlish underwear, and one huge pair of boxers. The interior walls of the van were plastered in old posters boasting concerts for bands that had died natural deaths decades ago. A fat white pig dangled obediently from the rearview mirror. It was grinning at him.

It took him a moment to dig free from the bedding. He crawled to the edge of the van and dropped his feet to the gravel. His shoes were missing, but he still had his dress shirt and slacks on, and he thanked God for it. It wouldn’t do to be socializing with his new friends in attire unbefitting the occasion.

He looked back into the van and wondered if there was any bourbon in that cooler. Maybe he should take a quick peek? But he abandoned the notion almost as soon as it’d arrived. Wouldn’t do to be caught snooping around in his guests’ private supply, now, would it? He had a feeling it was a long walk back to the highway.

He spied a bottle of water sitting at the edge of the open slider. It had a sticky note on it with the words Drink Me written across it in black letters. He peeled the paper free and smelled it. Sharpie. He laughed.

Drink Me. It had to be Alice. They’d spent a total of two minutes talking, and he was already intrigued by her. It was too much to expect that she might turn out to be another person of interest in this most bizarre outing, but he could always hope.

Then again, she was trying to poison him, wasn’t she? This was a half-liter bottle. There was probably enough poison in this bottle to kill a small village. Still, he twisted the top off and forced down a drink, and before he knew it, he’d finished it the entire bottle.

Take that, Alice.

He carefully recapped the empty, reapplied the sticky and put it back where he’d found it. Then he pulled a sleeping bag up over his shoulders and stood up. The air was brisk and cool. The gravel was cold beneath his feet. They were parked at a campsite between two anemic looking pine trees and a sun-tortured picnic table. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. He’d probably scared them off with his expensive duds and fancy cologne.

The campsite was a flat expanse of dirt and rocks and a few tired yuccas scattered haphazardly about. The site sat a dozen paces back from a river that twisted along like a great snake thirty or so feet below the camp. The land on the other side of the river rose most abruptly from the riverbank, sailing upward into a really steep hillside. It was nearly a cliff, in fact. He blocked the sun with his hand and tried to see up to the top of it. It looked like it might be a mesa. Or maybe a butte. Or maybe just a damned big hill. He’d never been much for geology.

He walked around the back of the van to relieve himself. The land across from their camp was pretty much a mirror view: Dried out mountains, ratty looking trees, spiky tufts of yucca, and plenty of struggling cacti and scrubby brush. Oh yeah, and rocks. Lots and lots of rocks.

When he finished, he walked around to the front of the van. They were parked beside a gravel road that twisted sharply to the left a hundred feet ahead. Beyond that was a tired two-track that wandered off into the hills beyond. There was no sign of his hosts, although he thought he could make out footprints plodding through the roadside dirt. They led directly away from the van.

A light breeze kicked up. He caught a whiff of himself. No wonder they were all gone. They probably abandoned him with the van until they could have it fumigated.

He grabbed his gear and climbed down to the river to wash up. A large bird watched him from the opposing bank. It was tall and white with a long crooked neck, ridiculously long legs, and a beak that looked like it could easily pluck out an eye. He tried not to draw its attention.

The water was clear and fresh, and colder than the sum of his sins. He splashed it on his face until he couldn’t feel his fingers anymore. Then he brushed his teeth with a toothbrush Josho had donated and ambled back up to the van.

He found his shoes neatly parked just under the van beneath the sliding door. A scroll of paper was tucked into the left one. He unrolled it and held it up to the sunlight. It was a note written in printed letters with just enough girlish flair to be artistic without stepping completely in cheese.

It read:

Good morning, Henry,

This is your mission, should you choose to accept it:

  1 - Grab a towel and a pair of flip-flops from the blue duff

  2 - Start walking down the road in front of the van.

  3 - Find a two-track road up by the bend

  4 - Follow it to a high cliff that curves in on itself to the east

  (that’s “to the right” in city-speak)

  5 - Don’t keep us waiting.

Yours,

Alice

PS Nancy says it’s just over 2 miles.

PPS He also says to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes.


FOURTEEN

HENRY BEAT THE DIRT WITH HIS STICK LONG AFTER THE SNAKE HAD DISAPPEARED INTO THE ROCKS.

Eventually he let the business end of the stick sag to the ground. He was shaking. His heart bounded so hard he was seeing spots.

“Grief,” he whispered as he surveyed the two-track, “I thought they were kidding.” He pushed a hand across his brow and looked at his glistening palm. Sweat again? What the fuck is this? He never sweated! Never!

After a final check for the snake, he started moving forward again. He twisted the stick in his hand as he walked. His scrotum was ratcheted tighter than a drum. Snakes! What the hell was he thinking? He should’ve stayed in the lousy van where all he’d have to worry about was an occasional unsolicited visit by bad memories, and a well-deserved dollop of guilt and self-loathing.

To make things worse, he’d lost track of time while hiking the Santa Fe Trail here. Seemed like hours. How long did it take to walk a mile, anyway? Twenty minutes, maybe? What was it on the treadmill? He had no idea. He never walked it, he always ran. He considered turning back, but what if they were only a few minutes ahead of him? Surely, it’d be safer to all walk back together. This place had to be a Dante’s Inferno of snakes and coyotes and scorpions and God knows what other hordes of miserable creatures calling the desert home.

Zoe had always wanted him to take her camping, but he would never agree to it. He hated the wilderness, and anyplace that didn’t have curbs and parking meters was the wilderness. The closest he’d ever come to camping was sleeping on a futon in a screened-in back porch next to the family swimming pool as a kid. And even then, he had two flashlights, a bat, a couple pocketknives, a whistle, and three friends backing him up.

Now he was alone in a snake-infested wilderness with nothing but a purple towel, a pair of oversized orange flip-flops, and a skinny stick to defend himself with. Zoe would’ve had a good laugh at this.

That thought stopped him in his tracks.

He stared down at the dirty path. It felt like the fight had just been kicked out of him. Why did he keep doing that? Why did he continue to sabotage himself so? He had to get her out of his head. He hadn’t even loved her for a good year before the murder. Surely, he’d paid his dues by now, hadn’t he? How long was this sentence going to last? Man, he so needed a drink!

He willed himself back into the walk, and he once again wondered how the hell he ended up here in the American desert. What was he thinking? Magnum Opus? Epic Outing? Bullshit! This was a one star comedy. Maybe Mrs. Pena was right. Maybe he did need AA. Maybe he needed counseling. Maybe he needed to be bloody committed!

“Henery!”

Henry froze at the sound of his name. Three syllables. It was Alice. He hoped she hadn’t heard him scream.

“Henry, what are you doing?”

Then he spotted her. Walking toward him down the dusty two-track. She was barefoot and wrapped in a towel patterned with fluorescent blue, orange, and pink flowers that nearly matched her hair. She looked like she’d just stepped out of the shower.

“Hey,” she called to him.

“Hey,” he called back. He had no enthusiasm for this.

As she walked up, she gave him a poorly disguised once-over. “Your clothes look even worse in daylight.”

He glanced down at himself. “Thanks.”

“No worries. We can fix them up. That’s our specialty, you know.”

“Fix them? Thought I was looking fairly dapper, actually.”

“What’s with the stick?”

Henry tossed it to the side. He felt himself blush. “Nothing,” he said quickly, “Whacking grass, I guess. That’s all.”

“Whacking grass?” She looked around. “What grass?”

Henry just watched her, praying she wouldn’t push it.

“I thought I heard you yell,” she said.

“Me? No. Just walking.” She was absolutely going to push it.

“You’re a bad liar.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem. I’m hopelessly observant that way. You’ll find there’s not much you can hide from me.”

“Why do I find that a little worrisome?” Her eyes were so green they seemed otherworldly. He had trouble breaking away from them.

“Are you all right?” she asked from narrowing eyes, “Because you don’t look so all right.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, shooting his gaze off into the dusty hills, “I am. You’re just… I mean, it’s your eyes.”

“My eyes?”

“Yeah, they’re a little intense,” he said, still studying the horizon, “I mean, it’s good. You’ve got good eyes.” He kicked himself as the words faded to silence. Smooth one, Henry. Man, you are some kind of idiot!

“My eyes are good?” she said, “Yeah… I do hope that’s a compliment, because it’s not really clear from over here.”

He felt himself blush. Again! It was a sensation he was quickly getting tired of. That and sweating.

“Sorry,” he said, glancing over at her, “I mean… your eyes are, you know, interesting, that’s all.”

“Interesting,” she said with a little laugh, “That compliment is interesting.”

“Never mind,” he said quickly, “Forget it, already. Sorry I said anything.”

She didn’t reply to that, but only watched him. He could feel the heat of her eyes against his face as intensely as if he were standing before a blast furnace.

“Sorry,” he said in recovery, “It’s nothing. I’m just… I’m prone to saying what I’m thinking. I’ve been told my filters need cleaning, you know? I speak without considering the possible outcomes. Obviously, it doesn’t always work out. Especially when I’m around assholes and stupid people.”

She laughed at that, and the sound landed like a reprieve. He could breathe again.

“I know precisely what you mean,” she said, “In fact, I’ve self-banished myself from all casinos for the remainder of my life. I walk in there, and it’s like a buffet of biting observations. I mean… I honestly just cannot resist my urges. Of course, I strive to be discrete, but… well, I’ve been told I can be just a bit loud.”

She flashed another smile that nearly knocked the wind out of him.

“I’m trying to be better,” he said, again forcing his eyes away from her, “It’s not right to make fun of people, or so I’m told. And it’s not like I’m a prize myself. I mean, look at me. Straight off the cover of BQ.”

“BQ?”

“Bums Quarterly.”

Her laughter was like music, and that wasn’t anything like a good thing; it meant she had bigger guns than he did. He needed to lock down the compound and double his defenses. He’d shared a total of three paragraphs of conversation with her, and she was already setting fire to the perimeter. A flirtation with a stranger was the absolute last thing he wanted or needed. It would just throw down more speed bumps along the road to self-immolation. He had to be pragmatic. He should not involve himself in something he could never finish.

“You’re staring at me again, Henery.”

He flinched at that. “Sorry,” he snapped, looking over at the sagebrush squatting along the two-track, “Guess I drifted off.”

“It’s fine. Just want to be sure you’re not standing there in a coma.”

He surprised himself by laughing at that. Then he glanced down at her attire, or lack of it. “So, what’s with the towel?” he said, desperate to pull the discussion away from himself, “Seems like peculiar dress for a stroll through the Mojave Desert.”

“Changing the topic, are we? Is that a defensive maneuver?”

He suffered a chill, because that was exactly what it was.

“You know the Mojave Desert is in California, right?” she pressed, “And this is New Mexico?”

“Of course, I know that,” he said carefully, “That was a little thing I like to call sarcasm.”

“Good lord, you are so not boring, are you, Henry? In fact, I think you’re far more complicated than a guy dressed in hangover clothes should be.”

Henry just looked at her. He was lost for any hope of a comeback. Her eyes felt like lasers. He could feel the burn of her gaze clear through to the back of his skull. It made him think of Mrs. Pena.

“I imagine you can be pretty intense,” Alice persevered.

He didn’t know what to make of that.

“You’ve got busy eyes,” she continued, “They’re telling me a story.”

A story? He didn’t like the sound of it.

She crossed her arms over her towel as she studied him. “I suspect you’re like one of those Matryoshka dolls.”

“Matryoshka dolls?” What the hell was he supposed to make of that?

“They’re Russian,” she said, “You open up the first doll and find a smaller one inside, a wee bit different from the first. And then there’s a smaller one inside that one, and then another, and… well, you get it.”

“I’m not sure I do, actually.”

“It’s not an insult. It just means you’re, you know, interesting. I think you might be complicated. In a good way.”

“Complicated,” he said back, probably too seriously.

“I said in a good way, didn’t I?” She sent him a faux frown and a finger wag. “Don’t start getting pouty on me, Henry. I have no patience for pouty.”

He again surprised himself by laughing. “Pouty,” he said, “I can’t believe you’d say that to me, Alice. I mean… we just met. You don’t know me from Adam. How can you accuse me of being pouty so soon?”

That seemed to throw the offense off just a bit. “Wait,” she said, “You misunderstand. I just meant—”

“Moody, yes,” he said seriously, “Grumpy, sure. Morose, definitely. But pouty? Hell, that’s low even for me.”

“Why, Henry,” she said, smiling like she’d suddenly figured out a secret, “I had no idea. Complicated and witty. I must say, I’m duly impressed.”

“Complicated and witty?” he said, “You’ve spent a total of like ten minutes with me, so how could you have possibly determined that I’m complicated? In fact, how do you know I’m not just simple? Or deranged? Hell, I’ve barely given you enough sentences to build a whole paragraph, and you build that into complicated and witty?”

At first, she just looked at him like she was trying to make a decision. And then she said, “I’m mostly sure you’ll take this the wrong way, but I have a sense about things. About the world. About people in general. About you in particular.”

“A sense about me,” he repeated. Clarence pushed his way into his mind. He’d said the same thing, and the memory immediately soured his mood. This conversation was quickly turning down a road he didn’t care to travel.

“Why else would I pick you up, silly man?” she said, “Sakes alive, do I look like someone who picks up serial killers?”

She was looking at him like he was the only person on earth. She had eyes filled with green flames and a face too perfectly balanced to pull away from. It nicely countered the fact that she was obviously mad as a hatter.

“I have something to show you,” she said, grabbing his wrist, “Something you can definitely use.”

He hoped it was a vat of bourbon.

She towed him down the trail at about thirty miles per hour with her hand shackled convincingly to his wrist. Her hand was small and soft and felt as hot as an ember against his skin. He wanted to pull away from her, but didn’t know how to do it without coming off as either cold or afraid. And yet, he couldn’t allow her to get too close. He had no plans to be around long enough to take that risk. He needed to free himself.

A twisted mound of cacti appeared in the middle of the path between their ruts. He veered around it, using the maneuver as an excuse to pull free.

He followed her around a low hill and through a landslide of rocks, trying hard to keep his footing under the pressure of a steep descent complicated by oversized flip-flops. As they cleared the bend, she slowed to a walk.

They entered into a narrow canyon with a wide river curling along its base. An endless cliff face heaved skyward on the far side of the river several hundred yards ahead. It was concave, hunkering out over the curve of the river like a giant wave threatening to fall down and wash the canyon clean. A hawk flew high above the river, circling it before the cliff on a slow, determined course.

A series of tiny stonewalled pools lined the bank just inside the bend of the river. Built directly in the water, they were clearly not a natural phenomenon. Most of the pools looked like they were nearly in the river itself. The first of the pools hosted three bathers. Clothes and towels draped some larger boulders back up on the dry bank.

“What’s this?” he said.

She didn’t respond but instead increased her pace down the washout. A few moments later, they arrived at the river’s edge. They were nearly at the occupied pool when she let her towel fall free. There was no bathing suit in sight.

He watched in wonder as she carefully lowered herself into the water. Her figure was timeless, softly curved and wrapped in skin as pale and perfect as rice paper. It was so unlike anything he’d ever have expected to see on this Epic Outing. And as she settled into the steaming water, he thought of Benjamin Franklin: Maybe this was proof God loved him and wanted him to be happy.

The thought immediately curdled in his mind. This was no proof of God’s love. God loathed him. God wanted him to suffer. This was just another of His taunts sent to goad him into doing something stupid, something that’d add miles to the roads of guilt already mapping his life. Like, go ahead, Henry, follow her in, get nice and close, get her to trust you, maybe add her carcass to the rest of the carnage burning in your rearview mirror.

“Are you all right, Henry?”

Alice’s voice snatched him back from his darkness.

She looked up at him from the water on the near side of the pool. She was perched forward on the edge with her arms crossed over the irregular stone rim, the important percentage of her body thankfully hidden behind the rocks. Her paint store accident hair was now pasted in a brilliant kaleidoscope of wet strings that clung tightly to her head. Henry glanced at the others and felt a pang of embarrassment. They were probably wondering just what kind of lunatic they’d drawn into their folds.

“Sorry,” he said, “I was… thinking. I guess. Just thinking.”

“What did I say about you getting into the right van?” she asked from behind thankfully folded arms

“Guess you were right,” he said as he struggled for breath, “It’s good. Looks very appealing.” He cringed at that. He hoped she knew he meant the water and not her nudity.

“Good? It’s brilliant!”

He realized that the carefully placed stones actually created an artificial pool within the river itself. Built against the bank, it physically separated them from the river’s current while keeping them still in the river water. And then he understood. They were harnessing the geothermal spring water bubbling along the shoreline. The rocks separated them from the colder river water. They were in a hot spring.

“How warm is it?” he said.

“A hundred and one degrees of pure heaven,” a man sang from the other side of the pool.

“Is that right?” Henry said for lack of anything better. For all he knew, that was hot enough to boil onions.

“Oh!” Alice declared, sitting upright in the water and exposing her mysteries to the world.

Henry ordered his eyes to her forehead.

“Henry,” she said quickly, “Forgive me, I’m so rude. I should introduce the other inmates of this travelling asylum.” She waved toward a nose, a pair of brown eyes, and a nearly black part floating just above the waterline to her right. “This is my baby sister, Bridget,” she said, “You met her foot last night.”

“I remember,” Henry said, throwing a half wave at the woman, “Hey, Bridget.”

Bubbles erupted below the submerged woman’s nose. It sounded like a greeting, but he couldn’t swear to it.

“And this,” Alice continued, pointing next at the next body over, “Is her boyfriend, Ed.”

Henry nodded at the male version of a half head with thinning brown hair floating a couple inches from Bridget’s. “Ed,” he said, “How’s it going?”

Ed popped his mouth above the water and said, “How do, Henry? Welcome.” He immediately re-submerged. He sounded Midwestern. Henry gave him a point for courtesy.

“And this is my brother, Nancy,” Alice said, splashing water at the man directly across the pool from her.

It was the guy who’d offered the water temperature. He was lying back with his arms outstretched across the rocks. He was nowhere near thin, in fact bordering on too chubby. He had an anemic, mousy-brown goatee and jaw-length frosted blonde hair boasting crisp black roots. His ears were mutilated with enough metal to set off a detector.

“Charmed,” Nancy said to Henry. It didn’t feel heartfelt.

“Nice to meet you,” Henry said. It wasn’t. He’d never really trusted men wearing mascara. He wasn’t homophobic, but he’d always found makeup on a man a bit ostentatious.

Alice turned toward him again. Henry politely sent his eyes downriver.

“Feel like a dip?” she said, “It’s the perfect temperature. You’ll feel like new, I promise.”

Climbing in naked and getting all cozy with these strangers was about the last thing in heaven or hell that he wanted right now. “Well, I definitely need a bath,” he said, looking down the riverbank. That and a case of bourbon.

“Oh, come on,” Alice pressed, “It’ll do you such good!”

Henry didn’t know what to do. He felt a strange kind of obligation to join, yet the thought of gouging his eyes out with a toothpick sounded like tons more fun. He glanced around the scrub. There appeared to be no one else around. With sincere reluctance, he began unbuttoning his shirt.

“Well, it seems we’re all in agreement, then,” Nancy said, smiling girlishly through his goatee.

Henry stopped unbuttoning.

“About your needing a bath, I mean,” Nancy said with a cute wince, “You know, stinkiness and all?”

“Yeah,” Henry said, “Stinkiness and all, sure.” Dipshit.

Alice splashed water at Nancy. “Don’t start!” she said sharply.

Nancy flipped her off. “So, with that being said?” he said, still smiling too precociously, “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind bathing a couple pools downstream first? As a communal courtesy, I mean. Just until you’ve cleaned up a smidge.”

“A smidge,” Henry said. He actively stifled the urge to walk over and drag the little queen out by his beard.

“I mean it, Nancy,” Alice snapped at the man, “Don’t be a dick!”

“What?” Nancy said, “The refill time of these springs is nearly—”

“Nancy!” she shouted at him, “Stop it now! You’re being rude!”

Nancy sneered at her, but complied all the same.

Henry looked at Alice.

Alice smiled and shrugged her brow. “I think what Nancy’s so graciously trying to say is that this is a replenishing pool, but it takes time for the water to completely turn over. To keep it clean, it’s protocol,” she splashed Nancy again, “To take a rinse in the river or in another pool downstream first. For the sake of the water here, I mean.”

“Sure, quite reasonable,” Henry said, “Just like showering before getting into a community swimming pool. I totally get it.”

“We all did it,” she said, smiling sweetly, “Even my asshole brother. It’s not just you, dear.”

“Seriously, no problem. Where do I go?”

He followed her finger toward a smaller pool a dozen yards off to his right.

“We put a bar of biosafe soap and another towel over there for you,” Alice said, still pointing down the river.

“Excellent!” Henry said, “I’m in full agreement. Sound plan.”

In fact, despite his desire to rearrange Nancy’s teeth, he absolutely did agree with them. He had no romantic notions about his current state of hygiene. He actually preferred to clean up first. Bathing nude may be the protocol of the day in this barking mad tribe, but it didn’t factor well into his scheme of normal. In fact, his head was nowhere close to the place where frolicking nude with complete strangers sounded anything like a good time. And anyway, God only knew what his skin looked like under the remnants of his suit.

Alice reached out over the rocks and squeezed his ankle. His ankle liked it. He pulled his foot back. No sense tasting a fruit he may like, but can never have.

“Henry,” she said, “We don’t mean any offense by—”

“No!” Henry said, throwing his hands up to her, “No, I absolutely agree. I can’t tell you how good a bath sounds. Really. I smell like shit, and it’s so not my usual style. Usually I just smell like liquor.”

She laughed at that.

“We’re all in agreement, then,” Nancy said, clapping his hands coquettishly, “Lovely.”

“Of course, we are,” Henry said, “You saved me from on-ramp limbo. I’m now duty bound to be your humble servant until the debt’s repaid.”

“Of course, you are,” Nancy said, smiling tritely, “So, as our humble servant, surely you won’t be offended if we suggest you wear your clothes into the water with you.”


FIFTEEN

HENRY SCRUBBED HIS SOAPED SHIRT AGAINST A SUBMERGED ROCK.

He’d seen the aboriginal people do it this way on National Geographic a hundred times, but in actual practice, it just didn’t seem that efficient. Maybe it was the buttons. He didn’t think loincloths had buttons.

When he’d scrubbed it about as long as his attention span would allow, he rinsed it, wrung it out, and threw it up over the same rock where his pants and underwear were drying in the sun. Then he sank back down into the hot pool and closed his eyes. Alice had been right; he did feel like a new man. Or at least a refurbished one. Even his headache seemed to have taken a vacation.

“Everyone’s heading back to Fort Drift.”

Henry nearly jumped out of his skin.

He twisted around toward the voice and found Alice standing over him. Her head perfectly blocked the sun so that her face was shadowed within a golden halo. It sent him reeling back to his school days, to his years of incarceration at St. Barnabus, to the saints looking down at him with their cold, judging eyes. The image was so surreal, he couldn’t think to do anything but stare at her.

“Hello? Earth to Henry?”

Her voice again slapped him back to the moment. “Sorry,” he said quickly. Another profound moment in the Life of Henry.

“I said everyone’s heading back to Fort Drift.”

She shifted to one leg. The sun popped over her head, thankfully shattering the holy illusion. He held a hand up to block the light. She was mercifully repackaged in her towel again.

“Fort Drift?” he said, squinting up at her. He wondered for a moment if he’d blacked out again.

“The van,” she said with a laugh, “It’s kind of a family name.”

“You name your van,” he said. His first assessment had been right: Madder than hatters, the whole bunch.

“They’ve had enough,” she said, “Bridge and Ed are going to grab some Z’s. Nancy’s going to throw breakfast together.”

“Oh, that’s cool.” He winced at that. Oh, that’s cool. Really groovy, man. What was he, twelve?

“I’m going down to the river bend for a regular swim before I go back,” she said, waving toward the amphitheater-shaped cliff, “It’s not far, and the water’s deeper there. Care to join?”

Before he could reply, she’d grabbed his towel and held it out like a royal robe for him to climb into. He wasn’t at all sure how to proceed.

“Earth to Henry,” she said again, “The clock is ticking.”

He looked up at the waiting towel. “Oh, did I say yes?” he asked seriously, “Because I don’t recall that. Maybe I just didn’t hear myself say it?”

“You didn’t say it. But you were about to.”

“Was I?”

“You were.”

He made no effort to get out of the water. He wasn’t about to prance naked before a stranger. Especially a stranger who looked like—

“Henry?”

“Yes?”

“You’re keeping me waiting.”

He studied her for a moment. Though her face was still darkened before the sun, he could feel the intensity of her gaze. “Do people always do what you order them to?” he asked her, mostly as a diversion.

“Mostly, yes.”

“Even people you’ve just met?”

“I told you, I have a sense about people. I know their needs better than they do.”

“Well, you sure as hell don’t lack confidence.”

“I have low tolerance for indecision,” she said firmly, “It’s a useless trait, one whose only purpose is to annoy those of us who are decisive.”

He recognized that tone; it probably came from her mother. He still didn’t get out of the water.

“Are you trying to annoy me, Henry?”

“I suspect annoying you would not be a smart decision,” he said.

“You suspect correctly.”

Her laughter amused him. It was unselfconscious, a laugh that took its job seriously. It was not good news.

“So,” she said carefully, “For the sake of clarity, let me repeat. I am going for a swim in the river. You would care to join me.”

“Since you put it that way, I guess I would.” But as he looked up at the towel, he again hesitated.

“Do I need to look away?” she said.

“I barely know you.”

“Don’t be so shy, Henry. We’re all born naked.”

“We’re also born incontinent. Doesn’t mean I’m going to urinate in front of you.”

“You don’t have to. I saw your clothes. I don’t think you have many secrets left from me.”

That simple statement suddenly put everything into perspective. There was no armor he could put up to fend off that truth. His only path now was to retreat.

“Well,” he said, shaking his head, “That’s about as sad a kernel of truth as I have ever had the misfortune to hear.” And with that, he climbed up out of the water and stepped into the waiting towel.


SIXTEEN

HENRY STUCK A TOE IN THE RIVER WATER.

It was a lot warmer than he’d expected, thank God. It wouldn’t require any stall time. He glanced back at Alice. She was bent over and digging through a bright green bag a dozen yards back. Her towel was already at her feet and her butt was smiling happily up at the sun.

The coast was clear. He dropped his towel and slipped quickly into the water. Thankfully, it was also deeper than it looked. This’d be a hell of a lot easier if he had something to drink. He wondered if she had anything harder than water in that bag.

He drifted forward through the water, keeping his back to the shore. When he finally heard the safe splash of her entry, he looked back. Alice was already swimming toward him. She was moving through the water with the same ease that he walked down stairs.

She sailed up alongside him. “Water’s nice, don’t you think?”

“Yes, it is.” It was also as clear as air. He paddled against the gentle current and ordered his eyes to remain above the waterline.

“What’s your last name, Henry?”

His alarm bells erupted. Last name? Bad sign. Last names only led to states, and then to cities, and then to email addresses, and even, just kill me now, phone numbers. His mind tripped through all the possible scenarios sharing that kind of information could bring about. None of them offered a happy ending.

“I’m waiting, Henry.”

“I’m aware of that, Alice,” he said seriously, “And I’d like to tell you, but I’d be in violation of the code if I did.”

She just looked at him for a moment as she agitated the water, her eyes carefully dissecting him. Then she said, “The code? Sounds mysterious.”

“You’ve no idea.”

“So, you’re a spy, then?”

He shrugged.

“You can’t tell me. I see. Must be dangerous.”

“It has its moments.”

“Let me guess. You must spend your days skulking through the world, yeah? All discrete and under the radar? Danger lurking in every shadow? By night you hang in fancy bars drinking martinis and playing baccarat?”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

“How very exciting, Henry. Really. I knew you were complicated."

“You’re quite perceptive, Alice.”

“Hm. I guess this effectively explains your bum disguise, then? You’re obviously working undercover.”

“Exactly,” he said, “Worst part of the job is not being able to tell my friends that I’m not actually a bum. But, sadly, one breech of the code and I’d find my ass in the kind of prison you don’t walk out of.”

 “Oh, my.”

“Not that I’m afraid or anything.”

“Well, of course you aren’t,” she said too seriously, “You’re just being prudent.”

“Truth is I’m just not sure I’d do well in prison, what with this baby face and all.”

“Yeah, you’ve got some real purty lips.”

He watched her swim away from him with a sense of relief. She was dangerous, this one. He had the feeling there were no boundaries, no walls impermeable to her. He had to stay on guard for the short time he was forced to stay in her company. Once back at camp, he’d get his bearings and hit the road. If the water didn’t feel so damned good, he’d head back right now. Still, he’d just give it another fifteen minutes and then make some excuse. He was tired, or maybe his head ached.

She swam out a dozen yards before circling back toward him. She didn’t seem to have to put any effort into swimming. She floated in before him in that slowly flowing water as easily as a flower petal drifting on a stream. In comparison, he swam like a Volkswagen. Fortunately, the water here was only chest deep.

She slowed to a stop and treaded the crystal clear water directly before him, even though she could have easily put her feet down on the gravel bed and rested. As he looked at her, his gaze suddenly defied his orders and slipped below the surface. Her body poured away beneath her, flowing down into the depths like liquid crystal, perfectly curved, perfectly balanced, perfectly dangerous.

When he looked up at her again, her eyes were locked on him. At first, he thought he’d been busted, but he quickly realized the look spoke more of curiosity rather than condemnation. A question was brewing behind that gaze.

“What?” he said.

“Do you like games, Henry?”

Games? Jesus, no. Who the hell asks questions like that, anyway?

“Sure,” he said anyway, “I mean… you know, it depends.”

“On what?”

“Well, the type of game, of course.”

“The type of game,” she repeated, “Getting closer. What else?”

Jesus, she was relentless.

“What else, Henry?”

“What else what?” he said.

“What else defines whether you play games or not. Other than the type, I mean.”

Henry thought about it. What choice did he have? He had to come up with something. There was no evasion in sight.

“I like to gamble,” he said in surrender, “Black Jack, poker, craps. Almost any game where a good player has a degree of control and can walk away with some profit.” He immediately cursed himself. What the hell was that? He prayed she didn’t take it as a flirt.

“I see,” she said.

“You see?” he said back, “Seriously? You see?”

“Well, of course I see. It’s obvious. You need a trophy. You need some kind of prize to make the game worth pursuing, or it’s just no fun.”

“So, you’ve got me all figured out already,” he said. She did.

“It’s probably born of lousy parenting,” she said, smiling impishly, “Further driven by hidden feelings of worthlessness. I bet you don’t ever compete at anything unless you can walk away with some token proof of your manliness. Maybe a metal statue or a stuffed bear, or maybe a deer head for over the fireplace?”

As Henry looked at her, he wondered how afraid he should be. Not only was she damned near right, she seemed to have a penchant for digging through his psyche and finding the nuggets of truth. She kept pushing him off guard with no apparent effort at all. He really needed to steady himself.

“What’s the matter, Henry? Too close to the truth?

“No. It’s none of that manhood bullshit. Mostly I’m just greedy.”

“I suspect greed’s the least of your problems, Henry.”

He watched her watching him, and he felt a weird kind of exhilaration for it. He had a feeling that in another world, in another time, in another dimension, she might have had something to offer him.

Too bad it didn’t fit into his current agenda.

She dipped her face in the water, then flipped her multi-colored locks back. “Where are you from?” she asked as she wiped the water from her face.

Shit! Here we go.

“Michigan,” he said.

“Michigan? You’re a hell of a long way from home without a car.”

“Michigan isn’t my home.”

Alice resumed paddling the water. Then her brow tensed, and she leveled her guns at him. “I see.”

“Now what do you see?”

“That’s the kind of game you like, is it, Henry? Something with a bit of the bait and switch tactic? Cloak and dagger? Hints and innuendos? Because if it is, you should know I’m pretty good at it.”

“You didn’t ask where I lived,” he said quickly, “You asked where I was from.”

She floated up onto her back. Her body emerged from the waterline like a gift from above. Henry’s heart leaped ahead of him. He quickly found interest in the circling hawk.

“All right,” she said as she floated before him, “Where do you live, Henry? Right now, not five years ago.”

“Um… Riverside.”

She glanced over at him. “You don’t sound sure. Are you sure?”

“Yeah, pretty sure. Riverside.”

“How’d you end up in the middle of New Mexico in such a… state of affairs?”

The temperature of the water dipped. He suddenly felt like he was sinking. Names, games, and addresses were one thing. But explaining his Epic Outing wasn’t a road he had any intention of turning down. Not today. And especially not with her.

She rolled over and swam closer to him, sailed up so close that her face floated just inches from his. Water beaded her face, glistening like liquid jewels in the breathless sun. Wet strands of florescent hair lounged around her smiling eyes. The pressure of the warm water agitated against his skin as she paddled. He felt the tickle of attraction.

He cursed himself and forced the sensation into retreat. Damn you, Henry! Defense already! What the hell are you doing? He dipped his face in the water and flipped his hair back on his head.

“I asked how you ended up here?” she pressed, “In New Mexico? With no car? No socks? The tattered remnants of what was once likely a styling suit.”

He again splashed a scoop of water on his face and smeared it up across his head. He started to speak, but the words simply wouldn’t come out. He felt like he was lost in the middle of the desert with no clue which way to run. And then he remembered that he actually was in the desert and couldn’t help laughing.

“Okay, I get it.” She said it like she’d just discovered another character flaw.

“What?” he said.

“Nothing,” she said, smiling politely, “It’s just… I see how this is going.”

“What?” he demanded, though he knew exactly what she meant. She was supposed to see how this was going.

“Nothing,” she said swimming backward from him, “Look, I need some exercise. I think I’m going to take some laps.”

He watched her swim away. And as she left him, he felt a strange kind of emptiness like he’d just lost an organ. His stomach felt unsettled. He wasn’t sure why he was suddenly feeling so uncomfortable, and he knew exactly why he was feeling so uncomfortable. Alice had the worst possible trait imaginable in a civilian. Alice had x-ray vision, and a lethal smile.


SEVENTEEN

HENRY RECLINED AGAINST THE SUN-WARMED ROCKS.

He laid his head back and stretched his arms out across the bank as he gently treaded the water with his legs. There was a rocky ledge here at this part of the bank. The water was waist deep and the current calmer. His kicking agitated the silt just enough to keep his modesty reasonably secure. The water was warm, the sky perfectly blue, the sun brilliant. It almost gave him hope again. Almost.

Alice glided up from the river. She slipped in beside him and parked her head back against his outstretched forearm. Before he could maneuver himself to a safer distance, she’d again handcuffed his wrist over her far shoulder to steady herself. Her eyes were closed, her face beaming up at the sun.

Henry’s calm deserted him. Just moments ago, he’d been as near to a state of bliss as he could reasonably expect outside of a drunken fugue, and now he was good and bloody well trapped. He looked over at her closed eyes, at the barest tease of a smile haunting her lips, at the perfection of her form just beneath the water, and he knew he should be running like hell, running like his plane was ready to depart without him.

But, he wasn’t running, was he? No, sir, he was lounging right there beside her in an unforgivable state of complacency, like someone had slipped him a beer seasoned with roofies, and he’d lost all sense of self-restraint because of it. He was tolerating her proximity, tolerating her familiarity despite the hazards inherent in such foolish behavior. He was letting her slip in past his razor wire perimeter, all the while knowing full well it would only end badly for her when the compound inevitably burned down.

“Let’s play a game, Henry.”

The words landed like a kick in the gut. A game. Perfect.

“Henry?”

“Again with the game,” he willed himself to say.

“Don’t be a baby. Nobody’s going to hurt you.”

He almost laughed at that. He wouldn’t be the one drifting face down in the river when they were done.

“Fine,” he said, without looking at her. Hide and seek sounded good. He could do the hiding, she could stay here and count to a billion.

“So, is that a yes?” she pressed, “You up for a game?”

“Um… sure, yeah. Totally up for a game.” He totally wasn’t. “I imagine you already have something in mind? Maybe I Spy or something?”

“Of course not,” she said, squeezing his hand, “I spy? Sakes alive, Henry, we’re adults, aren’t we? No, we definitely need something with higher stakes.”

Higher stakes? Holy shit.

“Like what?” he said.

“How about a variation of Truth or Dare?”

Every sphincter in his body tensed at that. Truth or Dare? How about a little game of Russian Roulette instead? There was less risk in it.

He felt her lasers probing him. “Well?” she said.

“I don’t know,” he said, probably too quickly, “We’re already naked in a river. How much is left to dare?”

“It’s not literally Truth or Dare, dear Henry. We take turns asking questions. We play until one of us refuses to go any further. The one who won’t answer a question is the loser. Game over.”

“Oh, that sounds like a hoot.”

“But here’s the thing. We both have to swear that if we’re the loser, we’ll abide by the winner’s challenge.”

Challenge? Time to run.

“Come on,” she said, poking him in the ribs, “Don’t over think it. It’ll be fun.”

He winced at the jab. “Fun?” he repeated. About as much fun as a hanging.

“Sure! Now stop analyzing it. You’ll be perfectly safe.” She laughed and squeezed the wrist she held over her shoulder.

“You think I feel unsafe with you?” he said. He wasn’t sure why he asked it. Probably because he’d never felt more unsafe with anyone in his life. He’d feel less unsafe locked in a maximum-security cell with a Hannibal Lector.

“I don’t think you feel safe with anyone,” she said.

 The saliva in his mouth deserted him. “Not true,” he lied, “I feel safe enough with you.”

She laughed at that. “No, you don’t. That’s precisely why you’re so evasive. You’re terrified of me.”

“I’m not terrified of you.” He so was.

“Henry, don’t start lying to me already.”

“All right, fine. How do we play the damned game?” This should take about one question.

She rolled sideways and placed her forearm on his chest, then parked her chin on it. She lifted one finger above the waterline before him. “First rule, we take turns asking each other questions.”

“You already said that,” he said, “You ask, I answer. I ask, you answer. I get it.”

“Brilliant.” A second finger rose up to join her first. “Second, the first of us to refuse to answer a question is the loser, and the game is over.”

“Fine. Question, answer, loser.” His stomach felt like ice. Why was he doing this? He just wanted her to back away.

“It’ll be fun,” she said, smiling coyly, “And since we’re adults, we’ll probably avoid questions like when was your last period, or how often do you masturbate.”

“Well, color me relieved.” Those were the easy questions.

A third finger stepped up in line with the first two. “Third,” she said, “And this is the most important part, so I want you to listen very closely, because this is where your trophy comes in.”

He looked down at her. “Seriously? Trophy?”

“Yes, Henry. Trophy. Are you listening? I want your undivided attention.”

“Oh, you have it.” God, did she ever.

“The winner wins the right to request anything of the loser,” she said, “They can have the loser commit an act, perform a function, tell a story, dance a jig, sing a song. Anything. Understand?”

“Anything?”

“Anything,” she said firmly.

“Like run naked through a 7-11?”

“I believe I mentioned earlier that we’re adults?”

“Hm,” he said, trying not to scowl, “So the winner can demand anything of the loser, so long as it’s mature and doesn’t bring the risk of prison or deep and permanent humiliation.”

“Exactly.”

“So it is Truth or Dare.”

“No, it isn’t,” she said, snapping water at him, “In Truth or Dare, you’re asked a question, then you decide whether to either answer or take a dare. In this game there’s only one dare, and it isn’t even a dare… it’s a command.”

“Great. Will we have a safe word?”

She laughed at that. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

His stomach again reminded him of the risk. What if she pressed too far? What if she questioned her way into his dungeon? What if she chased him to the cell? Hell, what if she fucking won?

“But in all fairness, dear,” she said, flicking more water at him, “There’s something you should know before we begin.”

He squeegeed the water from his face. “Great. And what would that be?”

“There’s not much I won’t answer.”

Excellent. He was predestined to lose. He should probably just refuse to answer the first question straight out of the chute. Just take his penance and be done with it.

She rolled off his chest and onto her back and hoisted herself a little higher on the rocks. The particulars of her curves emerged above the water line. He ordered his eyes once again to the hawk slowly circling a mile above them. Or was it a buzzard? That would certainly be more appropriate.

“I’ll tell you pretty much anything, Henry,” she said casually, “So you might want to start getting your head wrapped around the inevitability of losing.”

He sucked up some water and spit it out. This was already no fun.

“You’re in, then, Superman?”

“I’m in,” he said, “But only because I’m afraid of you.”

“As you should be.”

“How do we decide who goes first?”

She threw a snort at that. “If you even need to ask, you’ve already lost.”

“Yeah, sorry. Not used to being in the company of a Princess. Of course, you go first.”

“Of course, I do.” She rolled toward him and again propped her forearm on his chest, then reparked her chin on her forearm. “Let’s see,” she whispered as she studied him, “What to ask first? Tick-tock, tick-tock…”

She was studying him like she was serious. Her eyes were as green as kryptonite. He felt his power fading even as she watched him.

“So many questions,” she said, drumming her fingers on his shoulder, “So few hours of daylight.”

Man, he wanted a drink. He wanted a drink, and he wanted it in a bar, and he wanted that bar to be a thousand miles from here.

“Let’s start simple,” she said, still drumming, “What’s your full name?”

Names? What the hell was simple about that?

“Have to think about that one, do you, Henry?” she said.

“Smith,” he said grudgingly, “Alright? Henry Lowenherz Smith. And before you ask, Lowenherz was my Mother’s maiden—”

Alice splashed him again. “Moron!” she said, stabbing a finger into his face, “Don’t tell me everything. You can’t just dump it all out like you’re emptying a bucket. Are you actively trying to lose? You only answer the question you’re asked. Stall the game along.”

Henry flipped the water from his face. “Sorry.”

“I shouldn’t stop you, you’re only hurting yourself.”

“Story of my life.”

“Don’t you be losing on purpose, Henry,” she said, “I mean it. If I think you’ve thrown the game, and I win because of it, I’ll have you strip down and French kiss Nancy, I swear it. And trust me, he’s a total slut and will totally do it.”

“Fine. Message received.” Holy crap!

“All right. It’s your turn.”

He looked down at her standing guard on his chest. Her eyes were locked determinedly on him. She watched him like it was all she could do to not drool in anticipation of her victory. And in that moment, he suddenly realized what that old song lyric meant. What are you going to do when everybody’s insane?

“I’m waiting, Mr. Smith.”

“All right already! Let me think…”

“If it helps,” she said up at him, “I can add a timeout rule to the game.”

“You are one impatient woman,” he said because he meant it. “Okay. What exactly do you call that hair color?”

That seemed to throw her back a bit. “What, you don’t like it?” she said with narrowing eyes.

“I didn’t say that.”

She stretched a shoulder-length lock out from the side of her head and looked at it. The clump she was perusing was mostly Easter egg orange. “I’ll have you know this cost me a bundle,” she said, “Three or four dollars, in fact.”

He peeled a long, wet lock from her cheek. It was mostly Peep-yellow. The surprising truth was that he actually liked her hair. “Just answer the question,” he said. He gave the lock a little yank for luck.

“Ouch!”

“Of course, you know you don’t actually have to answer the question, right?” he said hopefully, “You can always concede to a superior force.”

She pushed herself away from him and treaded the water a few feet out into the pond. “It’s called fashionable, Henry,” she said, primping her hair dramatically, “It’s a style thing. You wouldn’t understand. I’ve seen how you dress.”

“Oh, that was desperate.”

“Yes, I am aware of that. But I honestly don’t recall the name. I mostly just look at the pictures when I buy the dyes, so it’s Fashionable or nothing.”

“Not sure that’s a good enough answer,” he said, closing his eyes, “Fashionable is not a color.”

Henry let his head fall back against the rock. The sunlight felt like a caress, though it would’ve been better with sunglasses. He thought about the Raybans he had stashed in his car. Now he only needed to remember where his car was.

She swam back in and rolled to a stop beside him, dropping her head back against his forearm and shackling his wrist again. She slowly paddled the water with her legs but said nothing.

After a minute, he said, “Well, what’s it going to be?”

“Patience, fool,” she commanded, “This is a complicated one. It’s a mix of colors. There’s no name for it. I think I’m going to have to give up a description instead.”

“I’ll have to consult the rules.”

“Blow me,” she said, flicking water in his face again.

“Blow you?” he said, spitting the water out, “What was that about adult behavior?”

“All right, here’s my official answer. It’s like a multihued cacophony of light and color.” She practically sang it. “It’s the unholy marriage of Easter and Halloween.”

Henry looked at her. “Uh… cacophony means disharmony. It’s aural not visual.”

“I know what cacophony means. It was an allegory.”

“I think you mean simile.”

“Whatever. Jerk.”

“Fine. Since it’s your game, I’ll give it to you. This once.”

She shrugged her eyebrows. “Smart man.”

He wondered if that were true. He didn’t feel particularly smart. In fact, in this sadly sober state, he felt pretty much the exact opposite. There was no way this was going to end well. He had to lose this queer sense of complacency and reestablish his boundaries. That or find some liquor to drown in, so he could stop giving a crap that he was going to crush her at the end of this foolery.

She cocked her head back over his forearm and rolled her neck back and forth against it. He recognized the technique. She had a headache. He wondered if she was hung-over. If so, it might mean there was something worth drinking back at Fort Drift.

“It’s your turn,” he said.

“How’d you get the black eye?”

His stomach lurched at that one. She’d asked it too quickly, without the obligatory thirty seconds of feigned thought. It meant she’d had it loaded and ready to fire long before she pulled the trigger. It meant she had a plan.

“I’m waiting, Henry, dear,” she said too cutely, “How did you get your black eye? And don’t give me any stories about walking into a door. I’ll see through that in an instant.”

He was about to cover his ass by throwing in the towel when he realized this was probably the safest question she could ask him. This one was actually easy. This one required no confession whatsoever.

“Well?” she pressed.

He smiled and dropped his head back onto the warm rock, and he closed his eyes. “I don’t remember.” It was exactly the truth.

She splashed him again. “No lying. If you cheat, I win.”

He flicked the water from his face and scowled at her. “Do that again and I’ll drown you,” he said. He meant it.

“Then don’t lie.”

“I’m not lying, Alice. I don’t remember. The best I can offer you is approximately when I got it.”

“When you got it,” she repeated like she wasn’t convinced.

“Yes. Since I was satisfactorily hammered by then, I’ve been thankfully left with no memory of the event.” There. The truth.

“Hm,” she said, “Let me defer to the judges.” She stuck her head under the water for several seconds, then pulled it out and flipped her hair forward spraying him with water. “Seems you’re in luck,” she said, “The judges agree.”

The water thing was seriously beginning to annoy him. He hoped that bode well for the impending demise to their relationship.

“They damned well better agree,” he said, “It’s a reasonable trade-off for the lame hair response.”

“I cannot argue that. Now, dear, tell me… when exactly did you get that black eye?”

Exactly isn’t going to happen. You’ll have to settle for approximately.

“You’re seriously pressing your luck, Henry.”

He leaned his head back on the rocks again and closed his eyes to that lifeline of solar heat. What was he worrying about? This was far too easy.

“It was during the time I blacked out,” he said, “So I expect it happened sometime between ten o’clock Friday night and just before noon Saturday morning. I’m guessing it wasn’t any later than five or six a.m., since the bruise was already a tad yellow by the time I re-entered around noon Saturday.”

She pushed off from the rock and submerged into the water until only her eyes were above the surface. A series of tiny bubbles slowly simmered around her cheekbones. Her green lasers were locked on him. After a bit, she surfaced again. “Re-entered?” she said.

“Oh, the rules allow a follow-up question? Good to know.”

She sent him something like a glare. It was half-hearted at best. “I see,” she said, “That’s how it’s going to be, then? You’re going to play the badge, Mr. Po-lice Man?”

Henry leaned his head back and again closed his eyes. “I believe that’s another ques—”

“Fine! It’s your turn. Prick.”

“Bitch.”

“Whatever.”

He didn’t open his eyes. The sun on his face just kept feeling better and better. It seemed his headache was finally dead and buried. “Okay,” he said, “Just where in Daniel Boone’s hell are we?”

“Henry, Henry, Henry,” she said far too gently, “You can play softball all day long if you think it makes you a nice guy, but I’m still going to play hardball. I’m no lady when it comes to competition. Having a vagina doesn’t mean I like trophies any less than you do.”

“I understand that, Alice. You’re a war mongerer, whereas I’m a reasonably nice guy. It’s all good.”

“I’m serious, Henry. It’s important you understand this. I don’t want you whining about it later when you’re Frenching Nancy.”

He opened one eye and looked down at her. “You told me there wasn’t a question you wouldn’t answer, isn’t that right?”

“I did.”

“So, logically, it doesn’t much matter what I ask. Does it?”

“Hm,” she said, “I’m sure there’s a strategy in there somewhere.”

He closed his eye again. “Answer the question, please.”

“We’re an hour’s drive east of Two Guns. It’s in deep southwestern New Mexico, in and around the Gila National Forest.”

“Two Guns,” Henry said, “Who’d name a town that?” It did not sound hopeful. He prayed it wasn’t a dry county.

“And that’s about an hour east of Serenity,” she continued, “You’ll have to ask Nancy for the details, because I’m fairly hopeless when it comes to geography.”

“Serenity,” he said, “Interesting name.”

“Peaceful name for a peaceful place.”

He thought about that. It seemed the truth of that deduction remained to be seen.

“My turn!” Alice said. Her voice boasted far too much enthusiasm to suit him.

“Fire when ready.” He immediately regretted the choice of words.

She pushed off and paddled out in front of him again. He felt her feet grip his ankles deep beneath the water. She was steadying herself against him. He wanted to pull away, but to his dismay, it seemed his ankles actually liked it.

“How often do you blackout?” she said.

He felt the rush of adrenaline. Blood surged into his head so that his eyes felt like they might explode. That one was a solid, perfectly placed punch to the solar plexus. She definitely had a project plan. He pushed himself upright and ran his wet hand over his face.

“Damn,” he whispered.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“Nothing,” he lied, “I’m… I’m thinking.”

“I told you,” she said, smiling too sweetly, “I play hardball.”

His belly was on fire. What the hell was he thinking? He never should’ve gotten into the van. He had to wake up from this pathetic and poorly received sense of contentment, wrap himself in his cape and get his damned defenses working again.

“Henry, the clock is ticking.”

This was going to open all the wrong doors. Maybe it was time to hit the road.

“Hen-er-y,” she practically sang, “I’m wai-ting.”

He looked over at her. He did not smile. “Who said I blacked out?”

She squeezed his ankles tighter. “Actually, you did. And you don’t get a question yet.”

He suddenly felt caught in a lightning storm with no place to hide.

Then an epiphany. What was the big deal? She’d seen his clothes, for Christ’s sake. She’d spent the night smelling him in a closed van. What the hell difference did it make now if she knew the rest of the truth? She was a stranger, wasn’t she? At the end of the day, God would have His way, and she’d just end up more burning wreckage fading in the dust behind him, right? So what could she possibly do to harm him? Absolutely nothing, that’s what. If anything, going down this road might solve his problem altogether: She’d send him packing before this little tete-a-tete got any more complicated, thus sparing him the trouble of making up an excuse.

“Tell me, Henry,” she said suddenly, “Is it possible you’re stalling?”

He realized he was glaring at her and quickly pulled his eyes away. “This was the first time,” he said at last. Perfect answer. Perfect truth.

“Your first?”

“Yes. My first. I’ve never blacked out before. I’ve re-entered before with a few holes in the trip’s diary, sure, but I’ve never technically blacked out. So you can stop looking at me like I’m a damned stumble-drunk”

“I didn’t ask it to judge you, Henry. And I’m not suggesting anything. It’s merely a question, nothing more and nothing less.”

“And that was just an answer, nothing more, nothing less. This was my first time. I don’t have any reason not to tell you the truth. And anyway… it wasn’t as much fun as it sounds.”

She laughed at that.

“Yeah, it’s hilarious, all right,” he said.

“How would you know that?” she said.

“How would I know what?”

“That blacking out isn’t as much fun as it sounds?”

“Seriously, Alice! How much fun does blacking out sound to you?”

“I’m just saying,” she persisted, “You can’t honestly say it wasn’t fun. It might’ve been the best time of your life. How would you know? You were blacked out during the entire event.”

Henry thought about that. It wasn’t a perspective he’d ever have found on his own. Maybe she was right. However, what he could say with one hundred percent confidence was that awakening from a blackout was absolutely no fun at all.

“Besides, I’ve blacked out on a few occasions myself,” she said matter-of-factly, “When I was younger, I mean. I don’t do it anymore. Drinking doesn’t suit me as well as it used to. I’d rather get stoned.”

He looked at her. She’d actually thrown him a lifeline. An unwanted swell of affection seized him. And then he saw his hand reach out and stroke her cheek with the backs of his fingers. He couldn’t remember giving the command.

She surprised him by pulling away from his caress. Another lifeline? He watched her slip down into the water until only her kryptonite-green eyes floated above the surface. He felt the pressure of her gaze as surely as if she pressed a gun barrel against his forehead. He thought of Mrs. Pena. These two weren’t much different, really. They were like supervillains whose laser vision could see slice through him like a match through a Kleenex.

She slowly resurfaced, though her eyes didn’t release him. “Your turn, Henry,” she said too gently.

“What, no follow-up?”

“Not allowed. Remember?”

He held onto her gaze. He studied her nose, her lips, her chin. He let his eyes follow her body down into the water, past her pale breasts, past her belly, all the way down to her feet so firmly handcuffed to his ankles.

“It’s your turn, Henry.”

He looked back at her and took aim. “Why’d you pick me up?” he said because he really wanted to know. “Back there at the rest stop I mean, I couldn’t have cut a very compelling picture. Or maybe you’re just a girly do-gooder who’s inclined to pick up dirty vagrants and bums in her spare time? I mean, you could probably smell me before you even opened the gates to Fort Drift.”

Alice tightened her grip on his ankles and slowly reeled herself in closer, stopping just shy of full body contact. “You’re a goofy man,” she whispered into his face.

He laughed at that. “You know, that’s funny. It’s exactly the image I’ve been grooming myself for.”

She was watching him too closely. Her eyes were practically on fire in the sunlight. He suddenly understood the meaning of breathtaking. It really was too bad he couldn’t linger here. He pushed his gaze out across the pond and into safer waters. “Answer the question,” he said.

“This one’s a little tougher, Superman. I think you may be moving up to the majors with this one, yeah?”

“Maybe,” he said, still avoiding her eyes, “But this one’s mostly for me. I just need to know.” He did, and he didn’t know why.

She put a hand on his shoulder and pulled herself too close to his face. Her breasts brushed against his chest. She lifted a finger from the water and delicately traced the curve under his bruised eye. “The truth is… I had a sense about you.”

The answer disappointed him. It was too trite by miles. “Yeah,” he said, “I’ve heard that one before. Care to elaborate.”

“Do you want the truth?” she said.

The words came off more like a dare than a question. His resolve weakened just a bit. This might be a good time to back out. Instead, he said, “Yes.”

“All right, Henery,” she whispered, “You tend to go the hard way, I think,”

Memories boiled up like a simmering pot left unattended. He thought of Clarence back in Defiance. Hadn’t the old man said the same thing? Hadn’t Clarence seen the same trait in him? The old man had tried to help him when he was down as low as a man can go. He’d tried to help him, and Henry had as good as kicked him in the teeth for it.

His guilt strutted boldly into the room. It seemed to be coming around a lot these days. Or maybe it’d never left; maybe it was always there, always loitering back in the shadows along the road like a murderer in the night.

Her lips were too close. He turned his face away from her. He felt like he was falling. He should’ve treated Clarence better. He should’ve treated Zoe better. He should have forgiven her!

“But do you want to hear the truth, Henry?” she whispered to him, “Do you want to know what I really believe? I think you don’t like the hard way at all.”

Henry dug his fingers into the rock. It felt like the oxygen had just evacuated the earth.

“I think you only choose the hard way because you believe it’s the easier road,” she pressed, still whispering too softly, “But in your heart? In your heart I think you know that’s not true at all.”

He felt the heat of her breath on his cheek. His pulse quickened right on cue.

“I think you’re just pissed off,” she whispered, “There’s not enough dignity in pain to suit you. Anger’s more impressive. Anger’s easier to manage, I think. You’re running from something. There’s a very frightening beast in your past, and I think it’s charging through the forest after you.”

Henry felt cornered. Hot pressure rushed his eyes like rioting prisoners. “I don’t think you understood the question,” he said, struggling to sound calm, “So… so let me repeat it for you. Why did you pick me up?”

Her finger slid along the curve of his jaw. Her lips brushed too close to his. Despite his orders to the contrary, his eyes turned to her. Her gaze sucked him in until he was adrift in her, and in that surreal moment, he lost the need to run. He only wanted to swim into those eyes and never come back. It wasn’t love, it wasn’t lust, it wasn’t even friendship. It was that rarest kind of intimacy, the kind that comes only when two complete strangers inexplicably share a moment of deep, unnatural understanding.

And then she flicked his nose with her fingertip.

She laughed as she pushed herself back into the water. “I’m just messing with you,” she said, “The short version is I don’t know why we stopped. I saw you standing out there in that soulless mercury light and had a queer feeling about you. You seemed so alone, I just… I don’t know. I couldn’t bear it, I guess. I had a sense about you, and that’s pretty much it. The voice just told me to stop.”

It felt like someone had mercifully rolled a giant boulder off his chest. Just when she’d had him pinned and was ready for the killing shot, she holstered her gun. He again thought of Mrs. Pena who’d given him the same gift just hours ago. What was it with all the kindness? For the hundredth time this trip, he wondered if he were dead.

“Henry? Are you all right?”

He looked at her. “The voice?” he said as his blood began flowing again, “Just one or many? Should I be afraid of you, Alice?”

“Absolutely.”

“Perfect.”

She slipped back a bit and brushed the water through her hair. “All right,” she said, “Next question. Where are your tie, socks, and belt?”

“In my car.”

She looked at him. Her mouth opened around a word, but he threw up a finger.

“Unh-uh,” he said, “No follow-ups.”

She dipped her face in the water and flipped her hair back again. “I’m getting cold,” she said, “One more question each, then we get out. Your turn.”

Henry leaned his head back against the warm rock. “Let’s see… it has to be a good one.” Just not as good as the last one.

“You are such a poser,” she said, laughing.

“Okay, here’s my question. What are you doing in a van with your siblings in the wilds of the desert Southwest?”

“Technically, it’s not a desert. It’s a semi-arid plains. At least, I think it is. We should ask Nancy.”

“Whatever. Answer the question.”

“It’s a vacation. Of sorts.”

“Of sorts? I think that demands clarification.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Should we consult the judges?”

“You’re a bastard.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Fine,” she said, giving him The Look, “It’s an annual pilgrimage. We take it to celebrate the deaths of our parents.”

“You celebrate your parents’ death?”

“That’s another question,” she said, wagging a finger back, “But I’m going to answer it anyway, because I don’t want you to think I’m a nut job.”

“A little late, Alice.”

“Our parents were killed in a car accident several years ago.”

“Oh,” he said, and then added, “Sorry,” because he probably should.

“It wasn’t your fault. Anyway, after they died, we decided to take a family outing every year about this time, just me, Bridget, and Nancy. To honor them, you know? We were pretty close, all of us kids and Mom and Dad. We weren’t anything like that ridiculous parade of dysfunction the TV shows portray. Our family was solid.”

“Sounds nice,” Henry said. He had no idea what that meant.

“Anyway, it happened so fast. I mean… one day Mom and Dad were answering their phone, and the next day they were only their voices on the answering message. There wasn’t any time to prepare, you know? It was… so sudden, so…”

The focus of her eyes changed so that she seemed to be looking backward into herself. Her faced flushed just a bit. He wondered if she was going to cry.

He considered saying something, but he didn’t. He just waited for her. He wasn’t qualified to speak to the subject, because he had nothing to benchmark it against. Families weren’t his strong suit.

Alice dipped her face in the water and smeared the remnants of the story away with her hand, and with that act, Henry immediately understood. She was going to cry. The memory had demanded a price for being awakened, and in that moment he felt a nearly overpowering urge to swim over and take her into his arms and tell her just how intimately he understood that price.

And that’s exactly what he didn’t do.

“Anyway,” she said, dragging a hand across her nose, “When we first came up with the idea we thought the family would be a lot bigger by now. I mean, how much fun would it be to have a caravan full of cousins and nieces and nephews? You know, a whole clan? But Bridget and I don’t seem to have the knack for breeding. And Nancy… well, he could adopt, I suppose. Or maybe squirt in a test tube and hire an incubator.”

Henry winced. “Thanks. Really needed that visual.”

“Thought you’d like that.”

“That is one sorry story. Thanks for sharing.”

“Don’t be an ass, Henry.”

He started to smile, but couldn’t pull it off. “Sorry,” he said, “It was a bad joke. I’m actually glad for you.”

“Glad for me?”

“You have Bridget and Nancy. That’s probably a treasure in a situation like that.”

“Probably? You say that like it’s a foreign concept.”

She was looking at him too hard. Even with red, wet eyes, her lasers burned right through him.

“I suppose it is,” he said.

She looked off toward the hills. “Okay, that’s about enough of that,” she said firmly, “I believe it’s my turn now, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, let’s see. I want to know where you were Friday night. Before the lights went out, I mean. What were you doing?”

Henry watched her for a moment. She was a bulldog, this one. She’d nailed his Magnum Opus to a dissecting board and was systematically disassembling it. Then again, maybe that was okay. Maybe she’d help him outrun his guilt, though he seriously doubted it. The more likely scenario was that she’d add to it, that she’d become another victim lying face down in the dust, another ghost to add to the crowd already smothering him.

“You look worried,” she said, smiling at him, “Do I sense an impending concession?”

Her eyes gave him no quarter. She had a bizarre and completely unexpected hold on him, and he knew he’d best make a fast and dirty decision about it. Either run the gauntlet willingly or just run.

“The clock’s ticking, Henry.”

“I was at a going away party.”


EIGHTEEN

HENRY STAYED AS CLOSE TO THE MIDDLE OF HIS TRACK AS HE COULD MANAGE.

He wished he had a stick. Fortunately, it appeared they were almost back to camp. At least, he hoped they were. He’d once again completely lost track of time.

He felt Alice’s hand slip into his. He looked over at her. She had that mischievous look again.

 “I’ll protect you from the big, bad snakes, Henry,” she said, laughing, “Lions and tigers and bears, too.”

With her body wrapped in that psychedelic towel and her head covered in that psychedelic hair, she looked ageless, like some kind of voodoo priestess who’d mysteriously teleported from the sixties. Yet, as he looked at her, he realized he actually did feel better holding her hand. Not that he’d ever admit it to her. Not directly, anyway.

“Not much of a country boy, I guess,” he said, glancing off into the scrubby grass following alongside the trail.

“No, I’d definitely say you’re not.”

He felt his towel slip a notch and grabbed it with his free hand. Alice had his newly washed clothes and didn’t seem in a hurry to give them back.

“Just because we paused doesn’t mean the game’s over,” she said, “Right?”

He stopped and looked at her. “Wait. I think it was a draw.”

“A draw?” She threw him a laugh that was too sinister by miles. “A draw? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I thought so,” he said, wincing, “Seems now I’m having second thoughts.”

“No draws. It’s un-American. I can’t abide a draw, never could. In my world we play to the death.”

“You were lying, weren’t you?” he said, “You don’t give a crap about any trophy. For you it’s just the kill. You like chasing your prey through the dark forest, isn’t that right? You like watching them grow more and more frightened, keeping them looking over their shoulder, waiting for them to tire out so you can take your shot. Just nod or smile if I’m close.”

Alice feigned offense. “My goodness, Henry. What a low opinion you have of me. Do I really look that dangerous?” She batted her eyes at him. “Well, do I?”

“More dangerous than any single person I’ve ever met in my life,” he said. He meant it.

She laughed again. “We’ll continue it through the day.”

“What do you mean we’ll continue it through the day?”

“What’s the matter,” she said, squeezing his hand, “Scared you’ll lose?”

“Scared to death. But that’s not important right now. I don’t see how we can do it. If I ask you what time it is, does that count as a question?”

“Good lord, you have such a rigid way of thinking.”

“Go ahead. Make fun,” he said, “But a game needs structure. Otherwise it’s not a game, it’s just life.”

“Fine, Analman. What’s your plan, then?”

“Well… I’m not sure.”

“Give me your best guess.”

“All right. For starters, I suggest we create pause and resume buttons.”

“Buttons?”

“Yeah, like whosever turn is next has the option to say ‘Game On’ at any time, and the game resumes. Or they say ‘Game Off’, and the game pauses.”

She looked at him like he was nuts.

“It’s not that complicated, Alice,” he said, “Surely a girl who has ‘a sense about things’ can figure it out. Game on, game off. Simple.”

She dropped his hand and punched his arm.

“Ow!” He grabbed his shoulder, and as he did his towel dropped to the dirt.

“Oops,” she said, laughing.

Henry quickly grabbed the towel and pulled it up over himself. “Damn towel!”

“My goodness, you’re a shy boy, Henry.”

He secured the towel and sent her a look. “I’m not shy! We just… we barely know each other.”

“We were just skinny dipping together, for love’s sake. It’s not sexual Romper Room, it’s just your skin.” She was still laughing.

“Well, there might’ve been people coming up ahead. Or maybe your brother, Nancy. How the hell can I walk naked in front of a bearded guy named Nancy? Fuck!”

“Henry, everyone bathes nude back here. Why would anyone want to wear a suit in a hot spring?”

“I’m just more comfortable with… dressed!” he said, scowling, “Let it go all ready.”

“Fine,” she said.

“Fine,” he said back.

“But you look perfectly normal naked, if that’s what worrying—”

“Enough, already!”

“Relax, my dear. I’m just playing with you.” She grabbed his hand, held it to her nose, and sniffed. “Geez, you clean up good. You don’t smell like shit or anything.”

Henry pulled his hand away. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Have you always been so particular about being naked? How about when you were a kid? Did you wear trunks to take a bath?”

“Don’t be an ass.”

“I mean, you were publicly hitchhiking covered in vomit, piss, and who knows what else, and you seemed perfectly comfortable with it. But going naked in front of strangers has you mortified? I don’t get it.”

“How far are we going with this?” Henry snapped, “When we’ve known each other longer than a day I’ll do the Macarena naked for you. Until then, stop making a case of it, all right?” He was getting pissed.

“A day? That’s a deal, mister. And I’m inviting Nancy.”

“Like hell, you are.”

She looked at him for a moment. Her lasers abruptly intensified, and then she said, “Of course, maybe it’s not modesty at all. Maybe it’s something else.”

He sent her a look. “My God, Alice! You’re obsessed with this.”

“Maybe you’re just afraid you’ll look at me naked and have a naughty thought at an inopportune moment.” She squeezed his hand as she laughed.

She was thoroughly amused with herself, and he was thoroughly irritated by it. “You’re some piece of work.”

“It’s the most natural thing in the world, Henry,” she said, still tittering, “Land sakes, some guys have to take pills. You should be grateful.”

“Bloody hell! Are we almost there?”

NINETEEN

HENRY SAT DOWN AT THE PICNIC TABLE OUTSIDE FORT DRIFT.

Two ruts ran through the dirt and gravel from the picnic table to the next parking area thirty or so feet down the way. He wondered why they hadn’t just moved the van down there instead of dragging the table all the way up here. Looked like it would’ve been a hell of a lot easier.

They were in an official camping area that ran along the river. Odd he hadn’t noticed it earlier. He also hadn’t noticed the massive iron firepit squatting between the van and the river. It looked like it could hold a fire big enough to be seen from space. He wondered how safe a fire that size could be.

A couple ropes stretched between a couple more anemic pines off to the left side of the camp. A few sleeping bags hung over them with the flannel side exposed. He wondered if that was his fault. He couldn’t possibly have smelled that bad, could he have?

Nancy was sizzling bacon over a camp stove down at the other end of the picnic table from him, standing in full sun. He wore a wifebeater that was so white it was nearly too bright to look at. It was also two sizes too tight and didn’t much flatter his man-tits. He remembered Alice wearing hers last night. She’d looked damned good in it, too. It was a sorry thing that Nancy had pretty effectively ruined wifebeaters for him now.

Nancy laid his spatula down on a fold of newspaper and looked at Henry. He dug a cigarette out from the maze of frosted hair above his ear, stuck it in his mouth and lit it without ever taking his eyes from him. Henry thought it was probably similar to the look serial killers give when marking someone for entertainment later.

Alice walked up just in time. She still wore her towel. “Bacon smells like heaven, Nan,” she said, slapping the back of his head and taking the cigarette from his mouth in the same move, “Don’t overcook it.”

“Blow me,” he snapped.

She set a small black case on the table next to Henry. “Hello, there,” she said, rubbing his hair, “Ooh, nice and clean.”

Henry cringed. “Is that going to be the theme of the day?” he said, irritated.

Alice lifted her head to the sky and freed a stream of smoke, then looked back at him and said, “You were pretty ripe, my little friend.” She punctuated that statement with a wink.

“I’m well aware of that, thanks.” He’d had about as much of ‘Henry smells like shit’ as he cared to hear for the week. A punch line only works once.

Alice took another hit and handed the cigarette back to Nancy. “The kids are sleeping again?”

Nance stuck the cigarette back in his mouth. “Is the door open?”

Henry looked back at the van in tandem with Alice. A couple pairs of legs and feet were visible through the side door. All the feet pointed up.

“It is,” Alice said.

“Then they’re sleeping,” Nancy said, squinting through the cigarette smoke, “If it’s closed, there’s ninety-four per cent probability they’re doing the horizontal waltz.” He glanced over at the van and added, “Well, it’s usually horizontal. They’re as athletic as a couple spider monkeys.”

“You boys are getting along well, I hope?” Alice said as she poured a plastic cup of orange juice from a beat-up pitcher.

“Like a fresh pair of BFFs,” Nancy said with an unhealthy dose of cute, “Why, the conversation’s been simply riveting. Wouldn’t you say so, Henry, dear?”

“And how,” Henry said. The guy was a serious dipshit.

He picked at the graffiti scars on the wood and wondered how far away the highway was. Someone had carved Joanie sucks dick right below Eat Shit. One or both of them appeared to have been carved in ’03. He thought back to the rest area kiosk. Bloody assholes were everywhere, and they were apparently timeless.

Alice put a glass of juice in front of him, complete with a look of instruction that required no translation. It was probably best not to ignore it. He lifted the glass as she watched and took a conservative sip.

“You’re a wise man, Henry,” she said with another wink.

“Yeah, I’m the very pinnacle of prudence and good judgment,” he said, taking another drink. It actually tasted pretty damned good. It’d be perfect with some vodka in it.

“Your clothes are drying. I brought my box.”

“Your box?”

“My sewing equipment.” She patted the black case affectionately.

“Sewing?” He looked over at Nancy.

“Oh, it’s true,” Nancy said, “Our sweet Alice is a seamstress extraordinaire. Why, she could rival the most skilled eleven year olds Asian sweatshops have to offer.”

Alice punched him. Hard. “I’m a fashion designer, asshole.”

“Ow,” Nancy cried, “Bitch.”

Alice bent over Henry and pecked him on the cheek. “After I pee, we’ll work on fixing up your fashionable duds. How’s that sound?”

“Fixing them up?” he said.

“Gotta pee. Be right back.”

Henry watched her walking away. “You don’t have to go hide,” he called to her, “Whatever happened to ‘it’s the most natural thing in the world’?”

Alice sent him back a finger.


TWENTY

HENRY WATCHED THE RIVER BUBBLE ALONG BELOW THEM.

He wondered when they planned to uncircle the wagons and make for the trail. It had to be past midday already, and he was beginning to suspect there were Injuns in them thar hills. This was dangerous territory. Time was wasting.

Alice was the perfect blend of cute and smart, but she also packed some serious heat. She was getting too close too fast, asking all the right questions, and stroking him in all the right ways. It was becoming clear that she could get him talking with a simple blink of those kryptonite eyes. It was time to put some distance between them.

Besides, it was Sunday afternoon. He had an appointment with a barstool.

With that thought came a sweet pulse of joy! He remembered it didn’t matter what day it was. Not anymore. Every day was Barstool Sunday from now on. He was a free man aga—

“So, what’s your plan, there, Superman?”

Henry looked at Nancy, who was lighting up another cigarette.

“What do you mean?” Henry asked him, “What plan?”

Nancy took a deep hit, savored it a moment, then sent the smoke swirling poetically across the table. He was one of those guys who made smoking look organic, like it was a natural biological process. He made it look delicious.

“Hm,” Nancy said, like he really had to think about it, “I thought I’d stated it fairly concisely, even for a man of your… stature. Well, not to worry. I’ll simply pose it again without those complicated contractions. What. Is. Your. Plan?”

Henry had the sudden urge to slap the man stupid. The mascara. The frosted hair with intentionally neglected roots. The half-assed beard and Sinbad the Sailor earrings. Gold chains hanging over the tits he shouldn’t have. Yeah, that face was just crying to be slapped. And slapped. And slapped.

Instead, he lifted his coffee mug but stopped short of his mouth. “I suspect it’s exactly what you’re hoping it’ll be,” he said, “I’m heading back out to the road. As soon as possible.” He took a slug from his coffee. He wished like hell it had some fuel in it.

Nancy tucked the cigarette back in his mouth and smiled around it. “Perfection,” he said as he stirred the crackling bacon, “Seems we’re in complete agreement, then. Don’t you just adore synergy?”

“How far is it to the interstate?” Henry said, glancing sidelong at him.

“Not far,” Nancy said as he studied his cooking, “Interstate Ten’s maybe a hundred miles.”

Henry felt the earth open beneath him. “Did you say a hundred miles?”

“Yeah, could be a wee bit less. It’s directly north on NM one-eighty.”

“Well,” Henry said, regrouping, “How far to one-eighty, then?” Sounded like a highway. How hard could it be to thumb a highway?

Nancy slipped the cigarette from his mouth. He stroked a hand back through his thinning hair and gazed thoughtfully up into the blue sky. His movements were too delicate. He reminded Henry of a ballerina. A fat, hairy ballerina with breasts and a penis.

“If you’ll be kind enough to turn your attention to the gravel road?” Nancy said, gesturing like a game show hostess, “I believe you’ll find the starting line immediately behind the van.”

Henry looked back. Heat ghosts were already shimmering across the distant wasteland. The road ran back from the van for a quarter mile before disappearing into the curve of another giant pile of rocks.

“That’s the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy,” Nancy said, “It’ll take you straight to Oz. Follow that glimmering lane and you’ll hit one-eighty lickety split. Of course, the time will pass much faster if you sing and dance your way there.” He laughed around the cigarette still propped in his mouth. A few ashes flittered to their death in the bacon grease. “Oops,” he added, giggling.

“How far is it?” Henry pressed.

“Oh, not more than eight or nine miles,” Nancy said, squinting through the smoke.

“Eight or nine miles? Are you kidding?”

“Dear, dear Henry. If you were going to be here long enough, you’d learn that I don’t kid. Anyway, it’s only a three-hour walk. Two and a half if you press it really, really hard. Two if you resort to jogging. But I wouldn’t recommend that, you’re likely to get all sweaty and ruin your clean shirt.”

“Walk?”

Nancy laughed. “I thought you were in a hurry?”

“Well, yeah. But can’t I get a ride back with you?”

Nancy parked the cigarette on the edge of the table and resumed tending his bacon. “Sure you can. Except we’re not leaving until tomorrow, and I’m fairly certain you don’t have the patience to wait that long. You look like you’ve got the dogs on your trail.”

Henry felt sick to his stomach. He’d rather bite off his own foot than ask the favor, but what choice did he have? So, he braced himself and commenced chewing. “Nancy, would you consider giving me a ride out? Just to the road, I mean?”

“My name is Francis.”

Henry just looked at him. For some reason, the words didn’t connect. “I’m sorry?” he said.

“Francis. Only my family calls me Nancy.”

“I see,” Henry said, nodding. It was the best news of the day. “Well, then, Francis. Would you consider giving me a ride out to the highway?”

“Don’t call me Francis. I detest the name Francis. So holy sounding.”

Henry steadied himself. Then he said very carefully, “Okay, I give. What exactly do you want me to call you?”

“You can call me Frank.”

“Frank.” Henry resisted a laugh. Frank. It was too good. Frank the fat, hairy ballerina and his dancing penis.

“Don’t you think I look more like a Frank than a Francis?”

Henry looked at him posing flamboyantly with his spatula. “Oh, you bet,” he said after a beat, “Frank is perfect on you. Seriously. Perfect.”

“Thank you.”

“So, Frank, do you think you could give me a ride?”

“Well, Henry,” Frank said as he flipped a few strips of the cooked bacon onto the fold of newspaper, “There’s nothing on the whole of this Green Earth I’d rather do than watch your taillights fading into the sunset. But as you can sadly see, we’ve already set camp.”

Henry followed the gesturing spatula back to Fort Drift. They sat just beyond the edge of a huge awning stretching out from the full length of the van. Odd paper lamps of various colors dangled happily on a wire rope above them. The lawn chairs were decked out at the perimeter, the cooler in place on a folding table beside the door. It looked as homey as a bad postcard delivered fifty years too late.

He turned back to the table. He wanted a drink like it was his dying wish.

“Dear, dear Henry,” Frank said, “It’s a three hour tour. Pretend you’re Gilligan and just hit the road. It’ll be over before you know it.”

Henry thought about the two-track to the hot springs. That’d been bad enough, but nine miles down a gravel road in the middle of nowhere? Alone? Then again, he knew he wouldn’t be alone. There were probably hosts of snakes, and coyotes, and who knew what else just dying to keep him company.

He dropped his face into his hands, and sighed.

“You’re looking a little pale,” Frank said like he couldn’t possibly have cared less, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. Fine.”

“How do you want your eggs cooked?”

“Well, Frank, I’m thinking scrambled today. Seems fairly apropos, if you take my meaning.”

Frank broke an egg into the pan. The grease erupted and perfectly splattered his pristine wifebeater. “Son of a bitch!” Frank practically shrieked, “I just put this shirt on! Now I’m going to have to change it. Shit! Shit! Shit!”

And with those words, Henry found Jesus.

Frank blotted the hideous wifebeater with a wad of paper towels. He looked good and pissed. Before long, he threw the greasy towels down on the table. “Damn it to hell!” he said, “This will never come out. It’s perfectly ruined.”

Henry took a slug from his coffee and tried not to laugh.

Frank scowled down at him. “I suggest you eat well, Henry. You’ll need the energy for your walk. If you leave right after breakfast you can probably make US Ten by midnight.”

Henry put his mug down. Everything felt hopeless again, like he’d run out of gas in the middle of the night, far, far from help.

“I’ve got some socks you can have,” Frank said as he punished another egg, “It’s a long walk in dress shoes. I’d be simply mortified if you developed blisters on my account.”

Henry suddenly felt very tired. He wanted to crawl back into bed and sleep for a month. And just when his Epic Outing had been rolling along so splendidly, too. It was a shame, really. Now it was just as ruined as Frank’s white wifebeater.

Frank picked up his cigarette, but it was cooked all the way down to the butt. He scowled and flipped it toward the fire pit. “I’ll pack you some nourishment for the trip,” he said, “I’ve got some bottled water you can take. I’d feel just awful if you failed to make it home because of dehydration.”

“You’re a saint, Francis.”

Frank threw him a scowl. “It’s better this way, really.” He put the spatula down and broke a fresh cigarette from the pack. “You wouldn’t be comfortable staying here, anyway.”

“I’m sure you’re right.”

Frank poked the cigarette into his mouth and held the lighter up. He paused before igniting. “The truth, if I may be so bold?

“Oh, please. Knock yourself out.”

“Well… the truth is you’re not really our kind of people. No offense intended.” He smiled at Henry for a moment, then clicked the lighter to life.

“Well, thanks for the heads up,” Henry said, “Because, you know, I was damned near starting to feel like family. I appreciate your transparency, Frank.”

Frank blew the smoke up into the sky. “I just don’t want to you to develop any unfortunate misunderstandings,” he said, “We’re liberal do-gooders by nature. I mean, why on earth would we have helped you otherwise, right? But, sadly, all things come to an end, and now it’s time for you to be on about your merry way. It’d be unfair to lead you on, lest you think we’re like, you know, buddies or anything. We’re just not from the same neighborhoods, if you get my drift.”

Henry looked up at Frank who smiled back sweetly. It was suddenly all he could do to keep himself in his seat. Who did this little piss ant think he was? In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to separate that face from its front teeth.

But he resisted his cruder impulses. For once, he was actually glad he was sober. He couldn’t just bomb the bastard out of existence; this had to be a surgical strike. It was time to feed his darkness.

“What say we just put it all out on the table, Frank?” he said carefully, “The truth, I mean.”

“Henry,” Frank said with a little laugh, “I thought that was exactly what I was doing.”

“Is that what you think?”

“Most certainly.”

“Then you’re a dishonest man, Frank. And I have to say, I’m feeling a little disappointed in learning that.”

Frank looked at Henry like he had three eyes. “What did you say?”

Henry leaned into the table and stared up at Frank. “You know good and well what this is all about, Francis,” he said, “It has nothing to do with your people versus my people, so what say we just stop all this tedious pretending, hm?”

“Whatever are you talking about?”

“It’s about Alice, you fat little shit.”

Frank stopped stirring the eggs.

“Oh,” Henry said, feigning horror, “Color Frank surprised.”

“I don’t think I like your tone.”

“I didn’t ask.”

Frank flushed at that. For a several beats, he just stared at Henry with a look of surprise poorly masked by indignation. “It’s not about Alice,” he said as he recovered, “That’s crap. You just don’t—”

“I’ve known a million guys like you, Frank. Guys who can’t measure up to anyone else’s standards even though no one expects them to. Guys who’re perpetually afraid of life, who compensate with a ridiculous dollop of pomp and arrogance.”

Frank looked more confused than offended. “I… I don’t know what you mean.”

“You’re not a very good person, Frank. I imagine you were the kind of boy who got beat up on the playground for playing with the girls too much. You probably spent a lot of your childhood pulling the wings from flies, didn’t you?”

Frank threw a fist to his hip. “Now just you hold on there. Who in the hell do you—”

Henry slammed the table. “Shut up, Frank!”

Frank froze. He looked like he was just one hard glare away from crying.

“I want you to listen to me very carefully,” Henry said, “I don’t have any designs on your sister, so you can climb down off your high horse. Alice and I are friends, that’s it. We’re not lovers, we’re not bosom buddies, we’re just friends. And I have about as much interest in pushing it further as I do in bending you over the table and fucking you blue.”

Frank’s face was beet-red. “You… you think I believe you?” he said as he broke another egg, “I’ve heard that same crap a thousand times before.”

“I think you better try to believe it.”

“Bullshit!” Frank hissed back, “You’re just like all the rest, just a dick looking for a place to park. You’re just like that randy little bastard rooting Bridget in the van.”

“Damn, Frank. What the hell? That’s your sister.”

“You don’t fool me, Henry. You’re just another wannabe, so I wouldn’t advise getting all puffed up like you’re someone special. You’re just another in a long line of flavors of the day. Do you get it yet, Henry? Alice doesn’t buy, she just likes to sample.”

“May I be frank, Frank?”

“Oh, that’s hilarious. Never heard that one before.”

“I don’t have the energy for the good brother, bad boyfriend shtick, so I’m just going to shoot it straight. Do you think you can handle that without crying or wetting yourself?”

“Bring it on, dear boy.”

“Alice is a prize. I’ve only known her a few hours, and I can already see that. She’s the whole picture. She’s pretty and witty and gay, if you take my meaning. And I bet every man who meets her falls in love with her on the spot. Am I close?”

Frank drew a hit from his cigarette. His face was getting red again, but to his credit, the asshole didn’t speak.

“You need to relax, Frank. I’m not every man. I’m not here for a drive-by. I’m not interested in courting Alice, and I don’t want to bed her. Hell, I don’t even want her phone number, because she deserves a hell of a lot better than me. But I do like her, and I think we could be friends. At least for the short run. At least for the few miserable minutes I’m stuck in this Twilight Zone version of the happy family sitcom.”

Frank drew another hit, then he sent his beady eyes out over the river. After a short breather, he looked back at Henry again. “How do I know you’re not just full of shit, Henry?”

“You don’t.”

Frank flipped his unfinished cigarette off into the fire pit. He dragged his hand across his mouth. “Is that the truth, Henry?” he said, finally, “Is that all you want? To be Alice’s friend?”

“Hell no, that’s not all.” Henry lifted his coffee and looked out at the river. “I want to go home, and I’d prefer not to leave any bodies in my wake.”


TWENTY ONE

HENRY ROLLED HIS COFFEE MUG BACK AND FORTH BETWEEN HIS PALMS.

The sun stagnated just above the tree’s crown like a half-dead helium balloon caught in the branches. He couldn’t seem to will it to move. It felt like it’d been noon for a year.

He felt a warm grip on his shoulder. Alice dropped down on the bench beside him. “Yum,” she said as Frank slid a plate of eggs in front of her, “Nancy, you’re a dream.”

Frank didn’t reply. He was still sulking. He’d probably be sulking for a while yet.

“So what’ve you boys been talking about while I was off?”

Henry watched her eat. She even made eggs look good. “You, mostly,” he said.

She lit up at that. “Really?”

Frank sat down on the bench across from them with his plate.

“Frank holds you in high regard,” Henry said, sending Frank a wink.

“Frank?” she said, flashing that smile, “Wait a minute. It sounds like you two are bonding.”

“Well, we sure are,” Henry said, smiling, “Frank’s a great guy. He really watches out for you.”

“I know,” Alice said as she poked a forkful of egg into her mouth, “He’s a pain in the butt most of the time, but in his best moments, he’s a peach.”

“So what do you do, Henry?” Frank asked as he worked the fork through his eggs, “For work, I mean. You do work, right?”

Henry caught the look that Alice surely didn’t, but grinned back at Frank just the same. The man didn’t give up. In a way, he respected him for it.

“I’m not currently employed,” Henry said.

“Unemployed?” Frank said, shrugging his eyes, “Well, that’s quite the surprise.”

“It’s voluntary. I’m taking some time.”

“To travel?” Frank said, snorting.

“Yeah, that’s hilarious, Frank,” Henry said, “Nice shot.”

“How old are you, Henry?” Frank asked, “Fortyish?”

Alice flicked a bit of egg at her brother. “Don’t be an asshole.”

“Thirty-four, actually,” Henry said.

“Really? Thirty-four. I wouldn’t have guessed that.”

Henry looked at Alice. The sun was focused on her like she was the only person on the planet. Maybe that was why it was so stubbornly refusing to move. He forced his eyes away from her.

“I’m taking a sabbatical,” he said, “I needed some time out of the machine.”

“What did you do?” Frank bit off a piece of bacon. “Before your sabbatical? If you don’t mind me asking, of course.”

“Yes, Henry” Alice said, pushing her face into his, “Do tell. It’ll save me a game question later.”

“I worked with newspapers.”

“Delivering them?” Frank said. This time he winked at Henry.

Henry looked at him. He had to admit, the man could be pretty quick. “Another nice one, Frank.”

“Not if it’s true,” Frank said as he sparked up a fresh smoke, “If it’s true, it’s just sad.”

“I’m a web designer, actually.”

Frank blew a stream of smoke up over the table, then took another bite of his eggs. “Where did you go to school?”

“U of M.”

“University of Malawi?”

“University of Michigan.”

“And when did you start your sabbatical?”

“Friday,” Alice said.

Henry looked over at her. She smiled too sweetly up at him, and then she patted his cheek.

“How could you possibly know that?” he asked her.

“Through the simple powers of deduction, my dear Watson.”

“Seriously,” Henry said, “Help me improve my firewall. How’d you know that?”

“The going away party?” she said playfully, “It was yours, wasn’t it?”

His amusement soured. “Game on, Alice?”

“Certainly not. Besides, it’s your turn anyway. I can’t call it.”

“Whatever are you two talking about?” Frank asked too loudly, “Please resist speaking in code at the table. It’s rude, and you’re both sufficiently irritating without it.”

Henry seized the opportunity to change the direction. “Frank,” he said quickly, “The eggs were great.”

“Better than the soup kitchens?”

“Funny. Seriously, I appreciate the ride, the sleeping quarters, the food. You’ve been very generous.”

“I have indeed.” Frank stuck the cigarette back in his mouth and smiled around it at him. It didn’t exactly radiate warmth.

“Look,” Henry said to him, “I’d like to contribute something to the tribe. I don’t want to freeload.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alice said. She slipped her hand up over his shoulder. “You’re a guest. We won’t hear of it.”

Henry lost his breath at her touch. It took him completely by surprise, and it irritated the living hell out of him. “No,” he said less firmly than he’d planned, “I insist. I want to pitch in. I have—”

“Absolutely not,” she said, “You wouldn’t have been hitchhiking in the middle of the night if you had money to—”

“Nonsense!” Frank said, “I think it’s a grand idea. This a communal outing, correct? Everyone contributes? What can you donate to the tribe, Henry? Besides free labor, I mean?”

Henry leaned forward onto the table. “Well, here’s the problem, Frank,” he said, watching him closely, “It seems I may have misplaced my car.”

“Your car?” Frank said, “What’s that have to do with anything?”

“As it turns out, my wallet is in my car.”

At first, Frank only looked at Henry. Then he started laughing.

“I do have a twenty I can throw in,” Henry said.

Frank was still laughing. “A twenty? Are you joking?”

Henry had to bury a grin. God, this guy was easy. “Well, I know it’s not a lot, but it’s all I’ve got on me.”

“Silly boy,” Frank said, “Do we look like we’re short on cash? We’re all professionals in this tribe, and we’re most assuredly not on sabbatical. Don’t fret yourself over this. It’s our pleasure to contribute to the underclass. Even homeless drunks need a night out now and then, right?”

Alice heaved her fork at him. Frank dodged it so well he ended up on his back in the dirt behind the bench. “Goddamn you, Alice!” he shrieked from the ground.

“You’re a real jerk, Francis,” she said, “And now you’re exactly where you belong, down in the dirt like the pig you are.”

Henry seized the opportunity. He got up and crossed around the table, and he threw a hand down to Frank.

Frank looked up at the hand, and then he looked at Henry.

“Come on, Frank,” Henry said, pushing his hand closer, “You’re going to get ants on you down there.”

Frank accepted the offer.

“That was bullshit, Alice,” Frank said as he settled back in his seat. His face was a blood storm.

“How can you be so rude?” she snapped at him, “Henry’s our guest. Don’t treat him like he’s a… a… ”

“A bum?” Henry finished.

Silence filled the table. And then they all started laughing.

“Well,” she said, smiling at Henry, “I didn’t mean—”

Without thinking, Henry threw his arm around her shoulders and squeezed her in. “Forget it,” he said, still laughing, “It was pretty damned funny, actually.”

When he realized what he’d just done, he quickly recovered himself. Unfortunately, she continued leaning into him even after he’d rescinded the offer of his arm. He cursed himself an idiot. Careless acts like that were going to get someone killed.

“Frank,” he said quickly, “Would you consider something in trade?”

Frank brushed the dirt from his cigarette. “Sure,” he grumbled, “Whatever.” He grabbed the lighter and relit.

Henry got up and retrieved his gear from the van. He brought it back to the table and opened the paper bag.

“I swear,” Frank said, “You’d best not be pulling out any cigar butts or half-eaten sandwiches.”

Henry set the pill bottle on the table between them.

This apparently piqued Frank’s interest. “What’s this?” he said.

“Vicodin,” Henry said, “Eighteen tablets, high strength.”

Frank’s face melted into a state of reverence usually reserved for people who have suddenly and inexplicably found Jesus. “Vicodin?” he practically shrieked, “You have Vicodin?”

“That’s what the little brown bottle says.”

Frank looked at the label. “Eleanor Grandhart,” he read. Then his eyes narrowed suspiciously and turned back to Henry. “Exactly who is Eleanor Grandhart, Henry? Are these stolen?”

Henry just shook his head. Was there any winning with this asshole? “No, Frank. They were given to me.”

“By whom?”

Henry thought about Josho. As he did he felt a spark of hope that the man fared well on his journey. The sentiment surprised him.

“By a good friend,” he said, finally, “I have more than plenty of flaws, but theft has never been among them.”

That was apparently all Frank needed. The angst in his face melted away to pure joy. Henry could hear the angels singing on high.

“Take them if you want them,” Henry said, “With my thanks.”

Frank poured the tablets into his palm and rolled them around. An instant later, he was smiling at Henry like a moony schoolgirl. “Why, Henry,” he said, giggling, “Maybe I don’t hate you after all.”


TWENTY TWO

HENRY WATCHED A YOUNG COUPLE PITCH THEIR TENT AS A REALLY BIG DOG WATCHED.

The tent was going up alongside an ancient jeep Wrangler a few hundred feet down and across the road from Fort Drift. The woman caught him looking and waved. She had long blonde hair, a nice smile, and a bulging belly. Something about her looked familiar.

He dutifully waved back. He couldn’t imagine anyone voluntarily sleeping out here in the wilderness in a measly tent, especially not while so morbidly pregnant. Did they know there were rattlesnakes skulking about this place? The thought of it made his skin crawl.

Alice sat across the table from him working on his clothes. She’d been sewing most of the afternoon. Frank was swinging in a huge hammock hanging between the pines next to the fire pit. He was smoking a cigarette and supervising Bridget and Ed as they erected a good-sized tent of their own. The happy couple didn’t look too happy. He wasn’t sure if it was because of their forced labor or the fact they’d be sleeping there later. Probably a little of both.

The Story of Frank hadn’t revealed any surprises. The man was just about as easy as he’d expected him to be. He had the perfect personality for drug restoration. Just add opiates and – voila! – instant human.

Even better, his personality underwent a Doppler shift when he was stoned. In fact, he’d been so happy with the gift, he’d dragged a sizable box of medicine out of a storage well in the van. Sadly, it was all wine and cheap brandy, but any shelter is good shelter when it’s raining. Not to mention it turned out Chardonnay isn’t too bad in orange juice.

“I need you to put these on,” Alice said, holding his pants up before him, “I can’t finish the seams unless you’re wearing them.”

“Is that right?”

She looked up at him. “That is exactly right.”

He was still getting used to Alice’s Do-My-Bidding Look. She was sweet and funny, and almost disturbingly laid back, until she wanted something. That’s when she channeled the Master Sergeant, and that’s also when the people around her started mysteriously slipping out of sight.

“Well, I’m obviously here for your bidding, dear Alice,” he said. The wine was working. He felt more relaxed by the sip.

“Need I remind you whose slacks I’m working on?” she said with a look.

“How long have we been married?” he said, “Feels like a year already.”

She reversed an inside-out pant leg. “Have another drink, Superman,” she said as she inspected the seam, “Drinking makes slavery so much more enjoyable.”

“Depends on what kind of slave you are,” he said.

“Don’t get any funny ideas. You’re most assuredly the kind that needs liquor.”

“I guess that means I’m not a pleasure model, eh?”

“Sadly, dearest Henry, you’re the kind chained to a bench with a company issued oar and no seat cushion.”

He sighed. “I suppose it could be worse,” he said, “At least my wife’s a seamstress. Maybe she can make me some gloves.”

“Fashion designer, jerk!”

Henry grabbed a bottle from the box. Brandy. He hated brandy. Especially the skanky, bottom-shelf kind like the varnish in this bottle. He poured a couple fingers into a dixie cup and took a slug anyway. Despite the sensation of pure vinegar rolling down his throat, it was having the most desired effect. His worries already seemed to be evaporating around him.

He poured another. “Care for a bracer?”

Alice looked up at him. “I don’t need a bracer. But I’d love a drink.”

“Alice, your sensibilities move me.”

He set the cup down before her, then his hand reached over and brushed some renegade strands of hair back over her ear.

The action startled him. He reeled his arm back as casually as he could manage. Where did that come from? He couldn’t remember making the decision to do it. Again! He immediately poured another dose and summarily murdered it.

She stood up and handed him the pants and shirt. “Put these on, please.”

“By your will, milady,” he said. Failed humor. He started walking toward the van.

“Where are you going?”

He stopped and looked back at her. “I’m a little bit naked under this towel. Mind if I just slip into the van before I slip into your pants?” He realized what he’d said and kicked himself. Idiot!

Alice laughed. “My pants? Why, Henry! Are you asking me out on a date?”

Henry’s stomach soured. What the hell was wrong with him? He probably needed more brandy. “I’m going to go change now,” he said seriously, “You can wait right here.”

“You know they can treat most mental pathologies with counseling and drugs these days, right? Even things like obsessive shyness?” She sounded like she meant it.

He waved a fist at her and tried to scowl. “One of these days, Alice…”

She feigned indignation, waving him off like he was her favorite servant.

He climbed into the van and pulled the door closed. He felt simultaneously offended and flattered by the way she treated him. Alice was a peculiar little puzzle. She felt as comfortably familiar as a pal from the days of old, and as unnerving as a stalker. He wondered if she felt the same way. Or maybe this was just normal behavior for her. Maybe she just took to people the same way he took off from them? What had Frank told him? He was the flavor of the day?

In the end, that was very good news indeed, right? Flavor of the day? Perfect! He wouldn’t have to lose any sleep over the carnage he’d leave behind him. Maybe he wouldn’t even leave any carnage. Maybe he’d only be doing her bidding. Entertain me, pleasure me, you are dismissed. Next!

Still, he once again resolved not to encourage it. It couldn’t go anywhere anyway. Besides, how long had they known each other? A total of maybe eight hours? Another day with him and she’d begin to see the tubes and wires, and any affection she might develop would quickly sour into disappointment. At best.

But in the short run, he had to admit the truth. He secretly kind of liked it. He liked their bantering and their laughs, their playful teasing. It was a harmless little pleasure, like flirting with your favorite waitress, and their relationship had about the same potential for longevity.

He slid open the door and stepped out of the van. It felt damned good to be dressed again. Especially in clean clothes.

“Come here, Superman,” Alice said, beckoning him with her fingers.

He climbed up on the bench of the picnic table as directed. Alice immediately began pulling and fussing with his pant legs. He looked down at her from on high, and as he did he got his first glimpse at her work. She’d tacked a narrow ribbon along the outer seam of his dark blue dress-pant leg, and was now sewing it in place. The ribbon was a familiar pattern of twisted reds and blues. He had a couple Jerry Garcia ties that weren’t much worse.

“What the hell, Alice?” he said, “Am I joining a marching band or what?”

“No commentaries until I’ve finished.”

“And I’m guessing there’ll be none then, either? Am I right?”

“Stand still before I poke you.”

“I don’t have to march about the compound or anything, do I? Or play a musical instrument. You should know, I’m pretty much tone deaf.”

She sent him The Look again. “Your seams were coming apart. This is the only way to cover the tears. That must’ve been one hell of a going away party.”

“I wish I knew.”

Henry glanced over at Ed and Bridget working on the tent. Frank was still in the hammock, still smoking a cigarette, still grinning at him. Henry waved. Frank waved back. His eyes were smaller now, and he looked a good bit merrier than before the gift.

Henry looked down at his pants again. “Alice,” he said softly, “You realize these pants are part of a suit? A reasonably expensive suit?”

“I saw the label, Henry.”

“Then you know it didn’t come cheap.”

She stood up, propped her hands on her hips and glared up at him. “Where exactly did you say you left the jacket? Maybe I can dress that up for you as well?”

“It’s in my… ” He stopped. He got it. She was good.

“Yep, it’s in your car, isn’t it? Well… now you have a brand new pair of slacks designed personally by Alice’s White Queen label. I’d estimate these pants are now worth more than the sum of your cute little suit. Top and bottoms.”

“Whatever,” he said.

He immediately regretted the word. Her face twisted into an expression that probably wasn’t going to favor him. She seized a wad of his pants perilously close to his crotch and pulled him forward. He had to grab her shoulders to keep from falling.

“Listen to me closely, Henry,” she said straight up at him, “I know you think I’m some waifish little blonde who probably holds a fine job in one of Denver’s very best diners, but I’m going to enlighten you to the truth. So if you typically have a need to brace yourself for reality-altering revelations, now’s the time to do so. The truth is I’m a real-life, honest-to-golly, paycheck-earning designer with a real line of clothes and a real brick and mortar store that I sell them in. I even have a web page. And you should know I take my work very, very seriously.”

“Goddamn, Alice,” Henry said, still holding her shoulders, “Why do I suddenly feel like your bitch?” He wasn’t stretching it much.

With that, her face melted into a smile written straight out of a novel. “My dear,” she said softly, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

He was pretty sure it was.

“And Henry?”

“Yes, Alice?”

“The revelations about where I live and what I do are freebies.”

He nodded. “The game. Right. Thanks.”

As she returned to his seam, he wondered if he’d just witnessed The Truth of Alice, or if she was just messing with him. Probably a little of both.

He looked at his sleeve. His white shirt was barely recognizable. The rips were gone, the sleeve once again intact. She’d sewn surreal looking epaulets and psycho-military patches on his arms, chest, and shoulders. A wide, blue stripe banded each cuff. He didn’t even want to know what was on his back. He looked like a Sergeant Pepper reject. He figured he was getting a pretty good idea of what her store probably looked like.

“Almost done,” she said, smiling up at him.

“You sew about as fast as I drink.”

“I’ve had a lot of experience.”

“As have I.”

He looked down at the top of her multi-colored head. It didn’t seem as bright as before. Then he realized the water had taken some of the intensity out. She’d used a temporary dye, which made her quite prudent, didn’t it? There’s a little insight he might be able to harness to his advantage later when the time came to make his escape.

She’d rolled his pants cuffs up above his ankles and appeared to be tacking them in place. He wondered if she was just trying to access the insides or if she was turning them into capris.

He needed a diversion. He looked out toward the river and said, “Game on, Alice.”

She rolled back onto the balls of her feet and looked up at him. She’d shackled her hands to his bare ankles to steady himself. His ankles were really getting to like her.

“Is that right?” she said, “Are we feeling suddenly brave and manly, Superman?”

Henry followed the river down to the next camp. “I guess I am,” he said.

“It can’t be the alcohol,” Alice said as she sewed, “You haven’t had that much.”

“Give me time.”

She stood up. She wore that way-too-serious face again. Henry felt a strange urge to brace himself. “What?” he said defensively.

“Henry,” she said seriously, “I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to fix these threads up. I’d be sorely disappointed if they end up in the same condition they came to me in.”

“Funny, I was just thinking the same thing.”

She took his arm and guided him back to earth like he was the prom queen. “Well, well,” she said as she inspected him, “I must say, you do look lovely.”

“That’s exactly the image I was hoping for. Better than pretty, but not so arrogant as beautiful. Just plain old boy-next-door lovely.” And before he realized what he was doing, he brushed the hair back from her face again.

Before he could retreat, she put her hand on his and pressed his palm tighter against her cheek. Her skin was as soft and promising as a first crush. He felt a little weak in the knees.

“All right, Henry,” she said as she thankfully withdrew, “Game on, you say. What’s the question?”

“Not here,” he said.

“Not here? Ooh, that sounds promising!”

He followed her eyes over to the tent brigade. Frank was directing Ed to reset the corner stakes. Without getting out of the hammock, of course.

Henry looked back at her, then nodded toward the river. “Let’s take a walk,” he said.

“So Superman’s feeling a little shy, is he?” she said, “Does he need his Fortress of Solitude to ask the question?”

He pitched her as severe a look as he could manage.

She glided in closer to him. Before he could raise shields, she’d slipped a hand around his neck and drew him in closer. Her mouth rose toward his face. He caught the scent of strawberries in her lip-gloss. His fight or flight instinct surged like an electric pulse.

But instead of kissing him, she brushed her cheek alongside his and whispered into his ear, “You want privacy, do you? Well, I think we can do a lot better than a walk, don’t you?”

Her breath on his ear was unbearable. “Alice,” he said, “I don’t think—”

She pressed her fingers against his lips. Her cheek felt like silk against his. She smelled like an afternoon at the beach. “No walks,” she whispered, “I know a better place to talk. But I have to warn you, it’s going to require partial nudity.”


TWENTY THREE

HENRY FILLED THE SECOND BUCKET WITH RIVER WATER AND TOTED IT OVER TO THE BOULDER WHERE SHE WAITED.

It was no easy task, hauling twenty pounds of water as he felt his way along a rock-strewn riverbed with frozen feet and oversized flip-flops. The woman had to be insane for doing this.

Then again, he was willing engaging in the act, wasn’t he? And why, exactly? It had to be the brandy. The wonderful, beautiful, inspiring brandy. He felt almost back to his old numb self again. It probably explained such irresponsible risk-taking behavior with a very dangerous woman from who he should be running like bloody hell.

Alice squatted on a wide, flat boulder at the river’s edge, digging through her green bag. She was pulling out bottles of female paraphernalia and lining them on the sun-warmed stone beside a stack of worn, but colorful towels. She threw him a smile as he hauled the bucket toward her.

“This is going to be delicious,” she said to him, “You’re a doll to do this.”

“This is going to be cold,” he said back, “You’re a maniac to do this.”

He set the second bucket on the boulder next to the first. He wondered how long it would take for the sun to warm them. Given how cold the river water was, he figured around a month.

“Why am I a maniac?”

“I just told you. It’s going to be too damned cold. I can barely feel my feet.”

“So, I shouldn’t do it because it’s going to be cold?”

“Cold, like in painfully cold,” he said, “Cold, like in the color blue cold. It’s irrational.”

“Land sakes, Henry. I’ve never met anyone with so many boundaries.”

“What are you talking about now?”

“You’re a walking List of Rules.”

“Yeah, that’s just how I ended up on the interstate outside Albuquerque in the middle of the night with no wallet or socks. Rule number four hundred seven: Once a week, completely cover your clothes in vomit and proceed to black out.”

“Do you see the romance in anything, Henry? Look at where we are. Having a handsome man shampoo my hair in a pristine river in the wilds of the American Southwest? It’s lovely.”

“How romantic do you think having a bucket of ice water dumped on your head is going to be?” He began rolling up his sleeves. “Seriously, you should let it heat up for an hour or so. I’ll even stir it for you until it’s warm, if you want.”

Where the hell did that come from? He kicked himself for not bringing the brandy down with him.

“Henry, you are equal parts sweet and utterly hopeless. You should’ve been an accountant. Or better, an IRS agent. IRS agents simply love rules.”

“Whatever. Ready?”

She climbed up onto the wide, flat boulder and knelt with her back to him. Glancing up over her shoulder, she called, “Nudity alert! Cloister your shy! Blind your timid!” Then she pulled her tee shirt up over her head.

“Hilarious,” Henry said as he kicked off his flip-flops. The sun-warmed stone felt like heaven against the soles of his frozen feet.

“Do I detect sarcasm in your voice?” she said to him, “I’m just trying to be sensitive to your prudish fear of naked bodies.”

He hoisted the bucket into position and dribbled a bit of water on her bare back.

She screamed. “Jerk!”

“You realize you’re just making me enjoy this that much more, don’t you?”

She sent him a convincing glare. “You understand the concept of Pay-Back, don’t you, Henry?”

Henry felt a chill. “Not as much as I expect I’m going to,” he said.

“Why, I think you’re beginning to get it. Maybe you’re trainable after all.”

She rolled forward onto her hands and dropped her head low. “Now, dear boy, you may proceed.”

She looked like a condemned woman waiting for her beheading to commence. Henry hoped it wouldn’t come to that. He seriously entertained an impulse to give her the entire bucket, but she looked too vulnerable down there, too exposed. Sadly, he just didn’t have the strength to do it. Maybe he was a nice guy, after all.

“Hold on one sec,” he said.

He set the bucket down on the boulder, then draped one of the thicker towels across her shoulders and tucked it snugly around her neck. It was a brilliant play. Not only would he minimize her discomfort, but now he could look down at her without feeling guilty. It seemed the brandy was only numbing him so far. He wished he had some proper liquor.

“Thank you, dear. You’re not as bad as you think you are.”

“What are you, a mind reader?” Her insight didn’t so much flatter him as piss him off.

He lifted the bucket over her again. Before he poured, he called out, “Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!”

“Just do it already!”

Alice screeched as the water crushed down over her head. He poured it few beats longer than necessary. So much for being a nice guy. She came up sputtering.

“You’re right, Alice. That looks romantic as hell!”

“Asshole!”

Henry knelt down beside her. “Geez. Romantic notions sure must hurt a lot more than the books say, huh?”

“You’re a mean man.”

“You just said I was a nice guy.”

“It was a delusion.”

He looked over at the array of bottles. They were all unsurprisingly phallic-shaped. Sitting on the flat rock in the sunlight with the water coursing all around it, they looked like an ad for a line of back-to-nature dildos.

He shook his head to clear the image. Stay focused, he told himself. Don’t be lured in. “Which one’s the shampoo?” he said.

“Uh, that’d be the one with the word Shampoo printed on the label, Henry. Probably the front label, but you can check the back label, too, if you have any doubts.”

Henry scooted in closer to her, close enough that his thighs were pressed tight against her bare waist. He poured more shampoo in his hand than he figured he needed and started working it into her hair. The water was colder than hell. It didn’t take long before his fingers felt like someone else’s. Her waist against his pelvis, however, felt as warm as greed.

As he washed her hair, he suffered a cold bout of reason. What the hell was he doing? This was nothing like a safe position for the activity at hand. He quickly adjusted his stance, standing up to straddle her back instead. He forced his mind away from her flesh and concentrated on working her scalp.

“Oh my, Henry! That feels so good!”

The lather was rich and soft, even in the icy water. He watched blobs of it leap free and swim away with the current. As he massaged her hair, he was surprised to find himself enjoying it more than he’d expected. A lot more. Too much more. He looked up into the sky in search of yet another diversion. A little cloud was running like hell across an otherwise empty blue sea. It was really cruising along. Whatever was chasing it must be pretty scary.

Alice groaned.

He looked back at his work. Her head was a nice size, and he found himself enjoying the texture of her skull. It wasn’t perfectly smooth. It had bumps and kinks and flaws, all of which made it perfect. He could get used to having his hands—

No, no, no! Not a good place to linger, Henry. He cleared his mind and quickened his pace.

“Oh, my God! You should’ve been a masseuse.”

“Well, I considered it. But unlike Frank, I don’t look that good with breasts.”

She cocked her head sideways at him, peering up through the soap. “What?” she said.

He took the towel and dabbed the soap from her cheek. “A masseuse is female,” he said, “A man’s a masseur.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Hm, I was more turned on when you were a woman.”

“You know… if my life had a tag line, that would be it.”

“Henry, you have magic fingers. Keep scrubbing, baby.”

Henry obeyed. “Okay, here’s my game question,” he said as he watched the little cloud fleeing above him, “Why do you call Frank Nancy?”

Alice threw down a deep sigh and shook her head.

“What?” Henry said.

“Do you realize you haven’t asked me a truly personal question since we started this game?”

“Sure I have.”

“No, Superman. You have not. You do understand the point of the game, right? To get the opponent to refuse to answer a question?”

“Yeah. I understand.”

“Well, maybe you need to adjust your strategy a wee bit. No one’s going to fold because you ask them what color car they have.”

“Thanks for that tip, Alice. Really helpful.”

“I mean, come on. You could ask Nancy that question, and he’d answer it with or without a game.”

“All right, forget it. I thought it might be too personal.”

“I’m just saying… ”

“Okay, I get it, already.”

She was right as rain. He was pulling his punches. Or was he? In truth, it never occurred to him to ask her a personal question. He didn’t feel he needed to. Maybe he just wasn’t that curious.

No, that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t that he wasn’t curious, he was curious as hell. The truth was he didn’t want to know. The truth was he simply couldn’t know. It wasn’t safe to know. Not safe for him and especially not safe for her. His boundaries were already wavering like a mirage as it was, and it was getting worse with the alcohol.

“He’s called Nancy after our Mother,” Alice said.

Her voice startled him back to the moment. “I’m sorry? I don’t think I could possibly have heard that right.”

“We call him Nancy because it was our Mother’s name.”

“Okey dokey,” Henry said as he scrubbed, “Don’t believe I need to know any more than that, thanks.”

Alice laughed. “It’s not weird. He pretty much kept me and Bridge together after they died. In a conservative universe, he would’ve been the pseudo-Dad, but you may have noticed he’s a just little bit gay, right? So, in our world he became the pseudo-Mom. We started calling him Nancy as a joke. It stuck.”

“Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that sticks to a guy all right.”

“Nicknames?”

“Gayness.”

They both laughed.

Henry realized he’d been working her hair longer than necessary. The color of the soap lather had gradually transitioned from white to pinkish to gray. He worried that he might be overdoing it.

“Okay,” he said, “Time to rinse.”

“Noooooo!”

“Sadly, yes.” He climbed back to his feet and grabbed the waiting second bucket. He hoped the sun had warmed it a bit. He was pretty sure it hadn’t.

“Ready?” he said.

“No.”

He poured the water.

Alice shrieked.

He poured more.

She shrieked louder.

He worked the water through her hair long after he’d lost the feeling in his fingers. He worked it until the water passed through clear. He worked it longer than necessary because he liked it. And because he liked it, he vowed this would be their last physical contact. It was time to cut the rope and let this particular future plummet to its death.

When he finished, he knelt beside her and put a hand on her back. The towel was soaked. She was shivering. “Nudity’s a tad overrated right now, isn’t it, dearest?”

“Screw y-you, Henry.”

The cold had her a little out of breath. He pulled the wet towel away and replaced it with a dry one. He wrapped it tight around her shoulders and tucked it under her chin.

“What’s next?” he asked her.

“Condi-ditioner.”

He draped a second towel over the first, then turned to the waiting line of dildos. “This blue bottle?”

“Yes.” Her voice sounded meek and far away.

Before he applied it, he gently wiped the pasty hair back from her face. And then he cupped his hand under her chin. It was like touching a corpse. “Man, you are so cold.”

“That f-feels good,” she whispered. Her teeth clacked lightly.

“Sure you’re up for this?” He didn’t think it was a good idea. Scratch that, he knew it wasn’t a good idea.

“I’m ready,” she said softly.

Her voice gave him a smile. He had the sense that this was exactly what she sounded when she was a little girl.

He applied the lotion to her head and began gently massaging it in. He reconsidered his previous vow and pushed his body against her to give her his heat. At the moment, he had more than enough of it to share.

“Henry, that feels really good.” She wasn’t shivering as much now.

“Yeah, it’s a natural talent,” he said as he worked it, “I can’t even wash my own hair at the gym. Feels too much like beating off. Wouldn’t be prudent, not in un-mixed company.”

She smothered a laugh in the towel.

“It’s your turn for a question, you know,” he said, “Unless you declare Game Off. Or concede.”

“Conce-cede? Such a dreamer.”

“In that case, the microphone’s yours. Please proceed.”

“What happened at your g-going away p-party?”

Henry stopped rubbing. His stomach threatened him with that miserable sinking sensation again. Just when he was starting to feel comfortable with this charade, too.

“Don’t stop!”

He resumed massaging. He hadn’t thought about that night since it happened. When was that, a year ago? Five? Ten? He shook his head. How could it only have been two nights ago? He didn’t want to go back to it. Thinking about it made him feel dirty and stupid.

“Do you concede?” she said.

“Patience!” he said, “Man, you are one pitiless bitch.” He meant it.

“Hardball, Henry. I warned you.”

“You did,” he said. She had. He’d agreed. And yet, despite that, here he squatted, on a rock in a wilderness river, washing a half-naked woman’s hair. And he did so with only barely enough medicine onboard to begin numbing the human out of him. What was happening to him? It had to be the kryptonite in her eyes. She made him weak, drained his powers of evasion. She was the arch villain, and he shouldn’t lose sight of that.

“I’m waiting, Superman,” she said, as if reading his mind. Again.

“You realize I can only remember parts of it, right?”

“I know.”

“This is insane.”

“No pouting, Henry. And keep rubbing.”

“I don’t even know your last name.”

“Not my problem.”

“I don’t know your last name, and yet here I am telling you all my darkest secrets.”

“Not my problem.”

“I’m not sure I like this.” He totally hated it.

“Let me rephrase that,” she said, “Not even close to my problem."

“Maybe you’re a reporter,” he said. Like anyone would be interested.

She laughed. “Good thought. I’m sure the tabloids are tracking you as we speak.”

“Well, I hope they brought their cameras,” he said, “A beautiful full frontal shot like this would sell them a lot of papers.”

“How the hell would you know how beautiful it is? You’ve had your eyes closed since this morning.”

“I’m a gentleman.”

“You’re a prude. Now quit stalling. Answer, please.”

Henry sighed. He’d painted himself into a corner. Maybe he should just get up, and leave, just walk away and beat a hasty retreat before the real damage started.

He looked up at the little fleeing cloud. Man, that thing was hauling ass. It was quickly running out of territory. He wondered if it was a sign.

“I’m waiting,” she said.

“The party was at a bar called the Bucket of Blood,” he said seriously.

She turned all the way around at that. “Really?” she said.

Her expression was priceless. He laughed. “Nah, it was a sports bar. The Slammed Dunk, or some other crappy, cliché name like that.”

“Jerk,” she said, resuming her position.

“Thing is, there shouldn’t have been a party to begin with. If things had gone as planned, I wouldn’t be out here in the middle of the nowhere with no wallet or phone. I’d be back home on my favorite barstool watching a baseball game I couldn’t care less about, and drinking myself stupid.” Safe and sound.

“If I weren’t enjoying this massage so much I might be offended,” Alice said.

“I didn’t mean it like that. You know I adore you.” He faked a cough.

“Whatever.”

He thought about it as he scrubbed her scalp. “It would’ve been better for you,” he said softly, “You wouldn’t have had to put up with me last night. The smell and all. Stinkiness, you know.”

“And I wouldn’t have enjoyed a lovely morning of swimming and playing games at your expense.”

Henry looked up into the deep blue. The little cloud was nearly all the way across the sky now. He didn’t see any obvious monsters in hot pursuit of it, but he knew first hand that just because a monster can’t be seen is not proof it doesn’t exist.

“I know that’s not the end of the story,” Alice said.

“No, I guess not.” It sure as hell should have been.

“Then why are you not talking?”

Because it wasn’t a place he wanted to go back to. And even if he had, she was about the last person on earth he wanted to take with him. He looked up at the picnic table squatting above them on the ridge a thousand miles away. The brandy bottle was waving at him.

“Henry?”

“Okay, already! I’m thinking!”

“Good.”

“It’s like I said, there shouldn’t have been any damned party. I never told anyone I was leaving, no one I worked with, anyway. But it’s a corporation, and rumors just leak out the walls in those places. So there we were, me and all the do-gooders I couldn’t have given a flying fuck about, drinking and pretending anyone cared I was going.”

“You and all your pals.”

“I don’t have pals.”

“Poor Henry.”

“Don’t pity me. I’ve no desire for pals. Pals are like that guy in the movie who the others should’ve killed right off in the opening sequence, because that would’ve saved them a world of pain five scenes later.”

She laughed at that.

“I’m not joking,” he said because he meant it, “Anyway, the party wasn’t going too bad, I guess. At least, not for a party I’d normally have chewed my own arm off to avoid. There was plenty of liquor to kill the tedium. I could’ve managed it okay, I suppose.”

“Do I hear a but?”

He looked up at the sky. The little cloud had successfully run the gauntlet, and there was still no monster in sight. Was it possible it’d been running for nothing?

“But?” Alice said, “Hello?”

Henry watched the cloud slip across the horizon and into time. “But someone showed up,” he said, “Someone I had… bad blood with. Kill on sight bad blood. Couple that with the fact that I imagine I was pretty drunk by then.”

“You imagine?”

“I blacked out, remember? I don’t know how drunk I was. I do, however, recall trying to introduce his face to a barstool. I recall that moment most clearly. Last thing I can see is his buddies heaving me out into the parking lot as my pals watched in passive horror.”

The memory drained the blood from him. It was the first he’d thought of it since it’d happened. In fact, he’d pretty much forgotten them completely. Forgotten or suppressed. Either way, the images had only flooded the landscape of his mind in this very moment. How long had it been since he’d last seen that little pissant dick? Was it at the funeral? Is that possible?

Alice pulled out of his hands and twisted around to face him. He sent his eyes up to the picnic table. “Henry,” she said too gently, “You so lose.”

“What?” Henry said, looking up the ridge. Frank still lay swaying in that hammock above them. He was still smoking and still smiling and still watching them like a damned voyeur.

“You told me you didn’t remember how you got the black eye. You lied.”

He forced himself to look at her. “I didn’t lie, Alice. I told you I didn’t remember. Last thing I remember is pounding that asshole’s head against the bar. That, I admit, I remember as clearly as if it were the most beautiful moment of my life. What I don’t remember is him ever laying a hand on me.”

“You swear?”

“I’ve never lied to you Alice.” He took the second bucket and scooped more water into it. Then he lifted it above her head and said, “You ready?” It was all he could do to wait for her signal.

She’d already assumed the beheading position on the boulder, but then threw a hand up. “Wait!” she said quickly, “Who was the guy?”

“Alice, Alice, Alice,” he said, grinning, “You remember the rules right?”

“What?”

“No follow-up questions.”

Before she could respond, he dumped the icy water on her head, and he was pretty certain the resulting scream would be sung about for generations.


TWENTY FOUR

HENRY WATCHED THE BUGS THROW THEMSELVES TO THEIR DEATHS AGAINST THE WINDSHIELD.

It was like riding through a pitch-black tunnel while someone shot florescent paintballs at them. Everything that intersected the van’s headlights seemed like an explosion. He could barely see through the splatter.

A red light sparked in the back of the van. It was quickly followed by a heady cloud of sweet smoke. Alice appeared on her knees between the front seats and offered him up a joint. He looked at it, but waved it off.

“You sure?” she asked as she handed it to Frank.

“Yeah, I’m good,” Henry said. It already felt like hanging with the Addams Family. He didn’t think getting high would complement it much. Somewhere in the past few hours, his mood had veered off the highway and was tearing recklessly down an unmarked road. He figured it was the brandy: Cheap liquor equals shitty buzz.

A stop sign materialized in the darkness ahead. Frank slowed the van to a crawl. Henry leaned forward to look. They were at an intersection. A green governmental sign read: NM 180.

“What the hell, Frank?” he said, looking over at him.

“What?” Frank said, grinning like a busted schoolboy.

“This is one-eighty?”

“Well, let me see. Why yes, that’s exactly what the sign says there.”

“You told me one-eighty was nine miles out from camp.”

“I did?” Frank said, still grinning, “When did I say that?”

“Hm, let’s see. This morning, maybe? Over eggs?”

“It is nine miles. Isn’t it?”

Henry gripped the armrests keep from slapping him. “No, Frank. It’s like two miles, actually.”

Frank’s face grew absurdly serious. He rolled down his window and looked out into the inky night as if the answer might be waiting for him out there in the darkness. “Really?” he said after a moment’s contemplation, “Two? You’re sure?”

“Yeah. Quite sure.”

Frank looked over at Henry, and that shit-eating grin bounced across his face like an uncoiled spring. “Oops,” he said, “Must be the drugs. Sure seems longer. You’re really sure it’s not nine miles?”

Henry felt his face flush hot. “Frank, I swear to God I’m—”

“Move over, Superman.” Alice pushed her way up between the seats.

“Alice, I’m trying to have a conversation with Frank here.”

She wasn’t deterred. She scooted up over the compartment separating the front seats, then squeezed backward onto his lap. As she did, she threw an arm up over his shoulders and caught him in the temple with her elbow. He snapped away from her, hitting the side of his head against the passenger window.

“Ow!” he yelled, “Goddamn it, Alice!”

Sitting sidesaddle on his lap, she laughed and grabbed him by the face. “Oh Henry, are you all right?”

“Stop!” he snapped at her, “The seatbelt’s digging into my leg!”

She hoisted her butt up and unclicked the belt. When she released it, the belt abruptly recoiled, slapping his chin as it passed.

“Jesus Christ!” he yelled.

“Land sakes, Henry!” she said, snorting, “You are so accident prone.”

“Well, that bloody hurt!” Henry barked, “Maybe I should just throw myself from the van, and save you two the trouble.”

“Van’s not moving,” Frank said, “Worst you’ll get is a road burn.”

Henry glared at him.

“I’m just saying,” Frank said, throwing up his hands, “If you really want to get hurt, you’re much better off staying in the van. At least until we’re moving. Then you can throw yourself out. Why, it’s simple physics, you know.”

Alice cupped his face with her hands and said too sweetly, “Oh, poor Henry.”

He did a double take on her. Her perfectly blonde hair still startled him, even hours after she’d restored it. He couldn’t remember at what point today she’d gone from irresistibly cute to beautiful. It must’ve been sometime after she’d pushed him in the river.

The memory of that little moment in agony re-fueled his irritation. “All right, all right,” he said, pulling his face free from her, “You two make a hell of a pair. Larry and Curly! You’re like the stupider two-thirds of the stooges.”

Alice slid her arm around his shoulders. She laughed into his neck like a stoned tenth-grader “I’m sorry,” she said, struggling to compose herself, “Really. Forgive us.”

“Yeah, Henry,” Frank said, snickering, “Forgive us.”

Henry looked at Alice. Her eyes were wet with her humor. She was giggling so sincerely, he couldn’t resist laughing with her, which only annoyed him further.

“I’m serious as cancer,” he said, trying to smother his amusement, “You’re both a major pain in the ass.”

“Thank you, Henry,” Alice said, still snickering.

“Why are you up here, anyway?” he asked her, “Did Ed and Bridge get sick of you.”

“Yes!” came a chorus from the back.

“They’re boring,” she said, “All they do is kiss and grind. I’m sick of talking to myself.”

“Well, that perfectly summarizes what we’re doing up here, too,” Frank said, “Kissing and grinding. Isn’t that right, Henry?”

“Go to hell, Frank.”

“Henry is so stinking sweet,” Frank said, “Absolutely delicious, really. Why, I think I’m falling in love with him.”

Alice scooted further back on Henry’s lap and settled back against the passenger door. The move twisted her pelvic bone deep into his crotch. “Easy! Easy!” he yelled, “Mind the equipment already!”

She finally settled into position, her legs draped across his knees. The bones of her butt dug harshly into his thigh. He shoved her a bit higher on his hip.

“Comfy?” she asked him.

“Oh, yeah. Like a frog in a blender.”

“Perfect.”

She slid her arm around his neck and pulled the seatbelt over both of them, then clicked it in place.

He looked at the seatbelt, then he looked at her. “Yeah, that’s safe,” he said.

“I’m all about the safety,” she said, giggling.

“I was being sarcastic.”

“Of course, you were.” She pulled him tight and kissed him on the cheek. Between her grip and the seatbelt, he felt like he was in irons.

Henry again pulled free and looked over at Frank. Back to the task at hand. “You’re a real prick, Frank,” he said.

Frank sent him a look of shock. He had no pupils, just irises clamped tighter than a miser’s fist. He appeared to be thoroughly enjoying Henry’s contribution to the tribe.

“Whatever are you talking about?” Frank said, grinning innocently.

“I could’ve walked out of here today. You knew I could. You screwed me over.”

“This is true. This is quite, quite true. And as a matter of fact, I’m actually thankful you brought that up. I’ve been struggling with the burden of that lie all day.”

“Have you?”

“You’ve no idea. I’ve been searching for a way to apologize, but… well, I just didn’t know how to politely broach it. My manners were awful this morning, deviant at best. I boldly lied straight into your boyish face, and that’s the sorry truth of it.”

Henry felt like he was choking. He adjusted Alice’s arm away from his neck and threw her a scowl. She smiled back amiably.

“I don’t get it,” he said, turning his attention back to Frank, “I thought you wanted me out of here.”

Frank shrugged and grinned. “Well… I may have wanted to watch you suffer just a wee bit more. It’s a little weakness of mine. I’m pathetic, really. But, ironically, it turned out I actually like you. Then I just couldn’t bear to see you to leave, so I opted not to set you straight.”

“Is that right?”

“That is as right as rain, Henry, dear.”

“You also told me you couldn’t move the van because of the awning.”

“No!” Frank said, looking perfectly aghast, “Did I?”

“Frank, the awning wasn’t even attached! It’s a freestanding awning. You just drove away from it when we left!”

“Oh, I am so bad!” Frank practically sang.

“I could’ve left for home today, Frank.”

“Yeah, really sorry about that, Henry.”

Henry studied him for a moment. “I think you’re a compulsive liar.”

“I know.”

“But you don’t lie to actually get away with anything, do you?”

“Of course, not. That would be dishonest.”

“You just lie to keep people interested in you, don’t you, Frank?”

“Well, I should probably listen to you, shouldn’t I? I mean, if anyone could identify aberrant behavior on sight, it’d be you. Isn’t that right? In fact, I’ll bet you were only walking around interstates at midnight covered in shit so you could learn about such behavior. I think maybe you’re writing a book, isn’t that right?”

“I wasn’t covered in…” Henry gave it up. He was tired of defending it.

Frank leaned closer across the space separating them. “Aberrant,” he said, giggling, “I just love that word. How often do you get to use it in casual conversation? I mean, never! Right? It’s sad, don’t you think.” His laughter erupted full bore.

Henry looked at Alice. “Your brother is one serious piece of work.”

Alice just shrugged and grinned. “I know. We all think he’s an ass, too. It’s probably a genetic issue, like hair loss.”

“Hair loss,” Henry said, sighing.

It felt like he was in a psychedelic dream, where he knew it was just a dream, but where still couldn’t manage to wake up from it. His irritation felt as physical as a rash.

He looked out the front window at the moths blistering through their headlight beams. They were still parked at the stop sign!

“Damn you, Frank! Are we going to sit here all night?”

“Yeah, damn you, Nancy!” Alice cried. Then she pressed her face into Henry’s neck and laughed ridiculously.

“Holy crap!” Frank practically shrieked, “I thought we were just driving really slow.” He released a goofy laugh and grabbed the shifter.

The van lurched forward. They blew violently across the street and into the rocky field beyond. Henry grabbed Alice just as the van heaved to the right and struck the bank of a hill. They all snapped forward on impact. The back end thumped with the sound of rolling bodies.

As he listened to Ed and Bridget yelling somewhere in the black pit that was the rear of the van, he made a mental note to thank Alice later for having the foresight to buckle them in.


TWENTY FIVE

HENRY HAD NEVER DRIVEN IN SUCH ABSOLUTE DARKNESS BEFORE.

It felt like they were tunneling through a black hole. He kept the speedometer aimed at forty-five and prayed that none of the local denizens would dash out into the road.

“How much farther?” he asked Alice.

“Just a few miles, dear.”

He glanced over at her. Her smile was brilliant. It hovered in the shadows of the passenger seat unsupported by any earthly form. He remembered seeing the same image in the back of the van just minutes after they’d first picked him up at the onramp. He liked that memory. He wished he didn’t.

“I should’ve driven from the start,” he said, “I didn’t realized he was so messed up.”

“I told you he’s a lousy driver when he’s stoned.”

“I heard that!” Frank called from the back.

Alice glanced into the back, then leaned closer to Henry and whispered, “I also told you he’s sensitive about it.”

“I am not. Bitch!”

“Shut up, Nancy!” she yelled into the back.

Henry glanced in the rearview. “I should’ve just forced the twenty bucks on him and left it at that,” he said, “Never should’ve given him the Vicodins.”

Alice leaned closer, reaching across the console to rub his shoulder. “Don’t be silly,” she said, “He’s got an arsenal hidden somewhere here in Fort Drift. A regular medicine cabinet. If you hadn’t given him the Vics, he’d just have eaten something worse.”

“Couldn’t be much worse,” Henry said. He nudged his head back into her hand as she rubbed his neck. It simultaneously calmed him and sent his warning bells ringing. It seemed like she was touching him more and more, and he was resisting less and less. He had to start pushing back soon. If he didn’t, the end was going to be ugly, at least for one of them.

“You don’t know what you’re saying, Henry,” Alice said, “It could be much, much worse, believe me. You think he’s goofy now? You should see him when he’s speeding. It’s like Speedy Gonzales meets Jerry Lewis.”

“I doubt I’d have the generosity of spirit to tolerate it. Thanks anyway.”

She twisted around and again glanced into the back of the van. Then she settled back into her seat. “Last time we went out he was speeding like the March Hare. It was in South Dakota, some rinky-dink little nothing town in the middle of the Black Hills. To make long short, he created a wee bit of a scene. We ended up bailing him out of the Sheriff Taylor’s pokey.”

“Seriously?”

“Too seriously,” she said, laughing, “I don’t think we can go back to South Dakota to this day. I’m pretty sure he’s got a price on his head there. That’s the Story of Nancy, I’m afraid.”

Henry looked over at her, or at least at the brilliant smile floating in the darkness of the passenger seat. Then he turned back to the bug-spattered windshield. “Sheriff Taylor’s from North Carolina.”

“What?”

“Sheriff Taylor. He’s not from the Dakotas, he was from North—”

“It was a simile, Henry. TV is not real.”

“Actually, I’m thinking you mean allegory.”

She gave him The Look. “Simile! Allegory! Who could possibly care?”

Henry shrugged. “Well, it’s just that when—”

“Henry, you are so married to useless facts, you miss the color of the story.”

He thought about that a moment. He wanted to argue but there wasn’t any viable defense to be made. She was right.

“Okay,” he said, glancing over at her, “I surrender to your unrestrained-by-logic-or-facts sense of order.”

“Whatever, Analman.”

“That’s Mister Analman to you, pal.”

Alice twisted in her seat so that she was leaning back against the passenger door again. Then she slipped her bare feet across the console and onto his lap. He looked at the toes dressed in bright orange polish wiggling at him from below the steering wheel. Then he looked at her. “Does this seem even remotely safe to you, Alice?”

“What? My seatbelt’s buckled just like you said.”

He looked at it. It was buckled, all right. She was sitting on top of it. He looked back at the road. “This is a suicide mission, isn’t it?” he said, “None of us are expected to come back alive, are we?” Actually, it fit perfectly with his plans.

She laughed again and tickled him with her toes.

Henry doubled forward. The van swerved. Alice caught the dashboard with a hand. He braced her legs. The sound of rolling bodies again resounded from the back. Frank squealed. A moment later, they were back in their lane.

“Damn it, Alice!” he yelled, “What the hell are you doing?”

“Ticklish, Henry?”

“Obviously. And for the record? You think that’s the best time to pull a stunt like that? While I’m driving through the black hole of New Mexico at sixty?”

“Sorry.” She smothered her laughter with her hands.

“I’m serious, damn it!”

“I know you are!”

He could see her eyes glistening wet in the dashboard light. She was still covering her mouth. She couldn’t stop laughing. Again.

Henry shook his head, but found himself laughing with her anyway. How could he resist? She had the kind of laugh that could spark an epidemic. It ran perfectly counter to his natural tendency to nurture his bad humor.

After a few minutes, he saw a spark of red light sizzling against the darkness ahead.

“There’s something,” he said.

“That’s it, Superman.”

As they tooled closer, the sign grew clearer. It read Happy Corners Mall. The H was flickering annoyingly. He pulled the van into the gravel lot and immediately realized the sign was a complete lie. It wasn’t a mall and it wasn’t at any corners, and it didn’t look anything remotely close to happy.

He glided the van slowly past a trashy gas station, a souvenir slash grocery slash video store with more beer signs than parking spots, and an abandoned garage with a stack of rusting old shopping carts lined up in the assumed position out front. An exhausted hurricane fence spanned the gap between the garage and the bar. It protected a junkyard of cars and household detritus that stretched back into the night.

Parked outside the bar were three pickups, two cars, a couple motorcycles, a couple more bicycles, and another van even older than the one they were riding in. The lights on the bar pulsed gloomily. The name of the joint flickered in fading red above the door. The Cheatin’ Heart. No T. No shit.

He laughed.

“What’s so funny, Superman?”

“Are you kidding me? The Cheatin’ Heart? The Cheatin’ bloody heart? I’ll bet you my last twenty there’s not a woman inside that bar.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Frank called from the back.

“Go back to sleep, Frank,” he said over his shoulder.

“What, and waste a perfectly divine buzz? Never! Let us drink and dance and trip the lights fandango!”

The cargo door slid open and Frank stumbled out into the bleached mercury light. Ed and Bridget shuffled out after him. They were barely standing again before Bridget was reassuming the position with Ed, lips to lips and groin to groin.

“You heard the man,” Alice said to Henry, “Let’s drink.” She disengaged her door, but didn’t push it open. “Are you coming, dear?”

Her words sounded like background noise. He watched The Cheatin’ Heart flickering despondently above the door. A few moths circled it without much enthusiasm. He hated the name. He was pretty sure he was going to hate the bar, too.

“Henry?”

 He didn’t look at her. “What?”

“Are you all right?”

“Sure. Fine.”

Her hand handcuffed his wrist. She didn’t say anything.

He looked down at her fingers wrapped around his arm.

“Ready?” she said.

“I don’t know,” he said. It was the truth.

She pulled the door shut. Ed and Bridget passed the windshield. Bridget pointed at the door and made the universal sign for a drink. Alice waved them on. Frank stumbled past a moment later. He was still laughing.

Alice looked at Henry. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

“No obvious lies.”

“It’s nothing, Alice. Let it go.”

“Fine. Let’s go get a drink, then.”

He looked out at the gravel lot simmering under the mercury light. “Go on ahead. I’ll be in shortly.”

“What is it?”

“Nothing.”

“I said no obvious lies.”

He looked at her.

“Tell me, Henry.”

“It’s nothing… I just… I hate bars like this, okay? And I’m tired, I’m really tired. I’ll be in shortly. Go enjoy yourself.”

“You change directions like a pinball.”

Her face pulsed in the pink glow of the bar’s flickering sign. She was brandishing a smile with a sharp edge. He had the feeling he wasn’t the only one who could change direction on the fly. He had a worse feeling he was about to get a demonstration.

Alice rolled her window down. She pulled a cigarette out of a crumpled pack resting in a drink holder and lit it. Then she crossed her legs, laid one arm over the other, and looked at him. He felt her green lasers burning into him through the darkness.

He looked out into the parking lot. “What?”

“What? You tell me what. You were fine a few minutes ago, and now you’re all mopey. You’re not acting yourself. Or maybe you are acting yourself. What’s up?”

“How would you know what acting myself is, Alice? You’ve known me ten minutes.”

She took another hit from the cigarette and sent the smoke fleeing out the window. Then she set her aim fully on him. “You do have an angry side, don’t you? In fact, I’d say three of your four sides are generally in some phase of pissed at any given minute.”

For just a moment, he didn’t know what to do. He had no experience with her irritation. He didn’t know how to approach it. In the end, he decided on the truth. “Yes, Alice,” he said, turning his own lasers fully on her, “I do. I have a very angry side.”

If she only knew.

“Are you pissed because you didn’t get to leave today?” she asked plainly, “I can have Frank drive you south to US Ten first thing in the morning.”

He thought about that. “No,” he said because it was the truth, “Not really.”

She took another hit. The smoke swam hesitantly from her pursed lips, like it was deeply sorry to be leaving her mouth. It enticed him in a way that left him wondering if he’d been drugged himself. He had the most murderous urge to kiss her. Instead, he took refuge in his dark side.

“Are you afraid you’ll drink too much?” she said.

He let loose an insincere laugh at that. “More afraid I won’t drink enough.”

Her gaze intensified a bit. “Excuse me?”

“Nothing.”

“It wasn’t anything like nothing.”

“Night isn’t my best time, Alice,” he said, looking out at the flickering sign. “The Cheatin’ Heart. What the hell kind of name is that for a bar?”

She drew another hit and sent the smoke out her window. Then she crushed the butt out on the outside of her door and dropped it into the gravel.

The moment drew tight. Though he couldn’t explain it, he found the thought that she might be angry with him nearly unbearable, which only aggravated him to no end. What right did she have to intrude on his anger? It was none of her damned business, was it?

But he branded the thought a lie the moment it drew breath. That wasn’t the source of his irritation at all. The truth was he found himself in a queer kind of limbo, a place of ridiculous indecision that he had no experience with. The other truth was he couldn’t decide which he wanted more, his anger or her.

This moment had to be murdered.

“Forget it,” he said at last, “It’s not you. It’s just me. Me and my ghosts. Let’s go inside.”

She watched him for a moment. Her eyes were darker than he’d ever seen them. He could only imagine what kind of storm was brewing behind them.

“Henry?”

“Yes, Alice.” Here it came.

“I want to tell you something.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“I know you’ve got… issues. Or ghosts. Or whatever. I understand that. I know a man like you doesn’t end up on the interstate in the middle of the night without a wallet or a memory unless he does.”

He felt a rush of embarrassment. His anger requested control of his emotional steering wheel, and it was all he could do to refuse it. “Alice, I—”

Alice leaned over and pressed her fingers against his mouth. “I’m not finished talking to you. You’re not allowed to speak until I am finished talking to you. This is Alice’s Minute. Nod if you understand.”

He did.

She didn’t remove her fingers.

“I don’t know why I picked you up, really,” she said, “But it wasn’t because you’re the valedictorian of mental health. I’m not really qualified to judge anyone in that category, anyway, so I just don’t go there. What people hide inside is what makes people who they are. It doesn’t have to be labeled good or bad, certainly not by me. Nod if you’re still with me.”

He did.

She didn’t remove her fingers.

“Good. So here’s what I want you to know. You have your ghosts, I have my ghosts. We’re both our own special flavor of nuts. But tonight? Tonight our ghosts are not invited. They’re excused to the parking lot where they can huddle around and smoke and drink and tell their pathetic stories to each other until we return. Nod if you understand.”

He did.

She still didn’t remove her fingers.

“So, that being said, tonight’s plan is as follows. You’re going to hold my hand and take me into that bar right there in front of us. You’re leaving your pathos out here in the van. You’re going to drink with me. You’re going to dance with me. You’re going to make me laugh. A lot. And if you’re really, really good at those three jobs, there’s an extremely remote possibility that you might get kissed. Nod if you understand our plan.”

He did.

She pulled her fingers away.

“Good,” she said, “Now, is there anything you want to say to me before we commence with the festivities?”

“Yeah,” he said, “I’m really sorry you ruined my new designer duds.” He absolutely wasn’t.

She laughed at that, and the sound of it felt like a death row pardon. “First, it was totally my fault, Henry. I pushed you in the river, remember? They got drenched.”

“I do,” he said, smiling back, “Quite clearly, actually. But it’s possible I might’ve deserved it. After the bucket of water and all.”

“Excuse me? Might have?”

“No further comment.”

“Second,” she said, “They’re not ruined. They’re only wet.”

Then she leaned over the divider and kissed him on the cheek. “Anyway,” she said, stroking his chest, “I’m just glad Ed came through with some duds for you. You know, you don’t look so bad in a tee and jeans.”

“Thanks,” he said.

Then she pulled away and threw her door open. Before she climbed out, she paused and looked back at him. “I really like that shade of blue on you. That’s a color that was born your slave. But honestly, it’s the design that takes my breath away. I just love a man in uniform.”

Then she climbed out of the van and slammed the door convincingly.

Once she’d crossed before the van and passed through door into the bar, Henry looked down at the borrowed tee shirt. The Superman emblem was practically ablaze across his chest. “Actually, the color is just fine,” he muttered, “But I’m not sure I deserve the promotion.”


TWENTY SIX

HENRY WASN’T A BIT SURPRISED BY THE INTERIOR OF THE BAR.

It reminded him Clarence’s joint back in Defiance, though this place had a more vintage personality and was significantly older. The interior was cloaked in dark wood paneling, the high ceiling covered in antique tin panels. The bar proper was ornate to a cliché, complete with a backlit, mirrored wall lined with shelves of silhouetted liquor bottles. It started just inside the door and ran the full length of the room, disappearing into the gloom at the other end.

A couple cowpokes huddled on stools at the front end of the bar near the door. A few more were at the pool table in the opposing back corner, and another few were spattered in booths along the sidewall opposite the bar. The heart of the room was filled with classic wooden tables and spoke-backed chairs packed in too tightly. It looked like something from a black and white John Wayne movie.

The other significant difference between this place and Defiance was the jukebox. It squatted like a time warp against the middle of the back wall, bellowing the usual country-western crap about pickup trucks and love that’s long exceeded the use-by date. Frank, Bridget, and Ed were already huddled over it. Henry wondered what musical misery that combination was going to unleash.

He towed Alice through the smoke according to plan. He led her all the way down the old bar, back to the Siberian end of the room. He pulled out the second to last barstool and held her waist as she hopped into place. She was wearing a silky red dress that wasn’t nearly worthy of its post. The fabric was printed in a Mesopotamian motif, though the sash was strangely oriental. He didn’t even try to make sense of it. It was one of hers. It had to be.

He dropped down beside her on the last stool just as the bartender appeared. He felt an odd twist of disappointment that it wasn’t Clarence, sucking on his plastic-tipped cigar and wiping the counter with that snow-white rag. On a positive note, however, the man looked like he was going to be Clarence eventually, one day. He had the same gangly, sun-worn shell, the same creased face, even the same serious eyes. All he lacked was the gray hair, a cheap cigar, and a few more decades under the belt.

“How’s it going, honey?” the bartender asked Alice as he began wiping the bar down in front of them.

“Like a dream,” Alice said.

The bartender looked at Henry. A toothpick back and forth across his teeth. He worked it as nimbly as if it were another appendage. “How you doing, boss?” he asked Henry. The greeting came with a look that made him think they weren’t going to be pals.

“He is also doing quite well,” Alice said for him.

“Don’t think I’ve seen you in here before,” the bartender said to Alice in particular.

“Oh, we’ve been here before,” Alice said, smiling, “But it’s been ages. Like… a year.”

“Well, I’m glad you found your way back in. You can call me Larry. Welcome to the Cheatin’ Heart.”

It wasn’t until that moment that Henry realized the bartender was a woman. She was dressed in a horse wrangler’s body. She had a crisp, mousy brown crewcut and a denim workshirt with the sleeves rolled nearly to her shoulders. There was practically no exposed skin beneath the tattoos, and she had biceps impressively bigger than his.

“It’s nice to meet you Larry,” Alice said, “I’m Alice. This is Henry. The conjoined twins out there dancing are Bridget and Ed. And that debutante there is my brother, Nancy.”

“Brought the whole clan in,” Larry said, “That’s real nice.”

She was looking at Alice with eyes Henry had seen at least once on every man he knew. They were hunter’s eyes.

“What can I get you, honey?” she asked Alice.

“Rum and coke,” Alice said, “Tall. Diet. Double double. Lots of lime.”

Henry laughed. “Really? You don’t sound too sure. You want to think about it a minute?”

Larry looked at Henry like he’d just spit up on himself.

“You are so observant, Superman,” Alice said, patting the big red S plastered across his chest, “And you’re so right. I’ve never ordered a cocktail before.”

“Well, that was some good guess, then,” Henry said, looking up at the bartender.

“I know,” Alice said, “I’m lucky that way. Did I mention to you that I have a sense about things?”

“Yeah, once. I think.”

“How about you, boss?” the bartender asked Henry, though her eyes were locked on Alice.

“Bourbon. Neat. Make it a double and throw me a beer back.”

The bartender slid a bowl of popcorn in front of them. “You got it, boss.”

She turned to walk back down the bar, but didn’t make more than five feet before throwing Alice a wink over her shoulder, saying “Don’t you worry. I won’t be long, honey.”

Henry watched her bow-legged ass mosey on down the bar. Then he looked at Alice. “Just what in the f—”

Alice slipped up and kissed his cheek. “Don’t be jealous,” she whispered in his ear.

That just irritated him more. Jealous? What reason did he have to be jealous?

Frank slid into the bar on the other side of Alice and slapped the counter. “Hold on just a sec there, pardner,” he yelled at the bartender.

Larry stopped and looked back at Frank from an expression of irritation that seemed pleasantly at home on her face. Finally, she consented to walking back down to them. “What do you need, princess?”

“A pitcher of your most delicious lager and five glasses, please.”

The bartender looked at Frank’s shirt like she wasn’t sure what to make of it. Henry knew the feeling. It was one of Alice’s. It was too similar to the one he’d almost had to wear himself. But truth be told, it didn’t look bad on Frank. At least his man-tits were camouflaged under the panel pockets.

“We got two kinds of tap,” the bartender said at last, “Bud and Bud Light. Got a few more in bottles, a couple in cans.”

“Bud and light” Frank said with pressured glee, “How wonderful! They’ve got both flavors of draft beer.”

The bartender gave him a look that had Henry worrying for Frank’s teeth. “Bud’s fine,” he said to intervene, “And make the glasses dirty.”

Larry threw him a scowl as she walked away. Henry was sure he heard her mutter something about ‘fucking breeders’.

Frank slid his arm across the bar and laid his head down on it in front of Alice. “So, how are you girls doing?” he said, looking up at them.

“Not as good you,” Alice said.

“Well, then you’d better get to work. You’ve got some catching up to do.”

“Gonna need a little time on that, Frank,” Henry said, “Four or five days, I’m thinking.”

Frank slipped in between Henry and Alice and hooked them both by the neck. He pulled them all noggin to noggin. “I want to tell you something,” he whispered into Henry’s face.

Henry tried to twist loose, but Frank had a solid hold on him. He was stronger than he looked. “You’ve got our attention, Frank.”

“I want you to know I’ve done you both a nice little favor.”

Henry rolled his eyes up to Alice’s, three inches away. “Really,” he said, “You took the cyanide pill after all, Frank?”

Frank snorted and wrenched them in tighter. “No, nitwit,” he said, “I’ve decided, as matron of this household, to give you both a little privacy.”

Henry gave Alice the WTF look. Alice only shrugged her eyes.

“I’m giving you the tent tonight,” Frank said, giggling.

Henry felt the ground shake. “What?”

“The tent!” Frank practically shrieked.

“And what exactly do we do with it?” Henry said.

“Well, you sleep there, dipshit. What do you think you’re going to do? Bowl?”

“Wait just a second!” Henry said, “What? Why?”

Frank twisted his face up into Henry’s ear and whispered, “So you can have a little quiet time together, of course.”

Henry nearly choked. “What are you talking about, Frank?”

Frank eased his chokehold hold a bit. “What am I talking about?” he squealed, “You don’t want alone time? You’ve got this perfect vision of womanhood hanging on your arm and you don’t want alone time with her? What are you, a homosexual? If that’s a yes, I have Plan B at the ready.”

Henry finally wrenched his head free just as Frank swept in for a kiss. “Now just you hold on a minute!” he said, “I mean… you’re giving us the tent? What do you mean, you’re giving us the tent?”

Alice was laughing, as usual, and not offering a bit of help, as usual.

Frank suddenly looked very serious. “Henry,” he said carefully, “It wasn’t easy to get you the tent. Bridget’s not a bit happy about it. I’ve nearly been disowned by her and that randy bastard attached to her vagina. They wanted the tent, but I said no. I said you and Alice needed some alone time. It’s the least I can do after what I put you through.”

“Damn you, Frank.” Henry couldn’t believe this was real. He had to be dying in a ditch somewhere. This obviously some kind of pre-death punishment for that poorly lived life.

“Henry, I treated you despicably,” Frank said from pouty lips, “I’m trying to make amends.”

“Frank, I’m telling you right now, you don’t owe me a thing. And I’m not sleeping in the goddamned tent!”


TWENTY SEVEN

HENRY TOOK ANOTHER SLUG OF HIS BOURBON AND SUFFERED ANOTHER PANG OF DISAPPOINTMENT.

For some reason, it just wasn’t doing a thing for him tonight. In fact, it tasted like crap, though he was pretty sure it had nothing to do with the fact that it was well whisky. It was probably his anger tainting it.

Yet, tonight he wasn’t suffering his usual brand of anger, the anger that had so efficiently serenaded him through his flaming and, sadly, non-lethal re-entry into the atmosphere. No, tonight it was a new kind of anger, something fresher and more immediate like a fire started in the basement with a pint of kerosene, a box of kitchen matches, and a bad grudge.

He dropped the half-finished drink onto the wilted cocktail napkin, then leaned into the bar and looked down at the bartender. Larry was down at the other end, leaning across the counter on an elbow and dancing that irritating toothpick across her lips. She was watching Alice reviewing the selections on the jukebox the way a snake watches a mouse taking a morning stroll. Yeah, this was definitely a new anger.

“I thought you didn’t have any designs on my sister?”

Henry looked over at Frank, who leaned backward with his elbows propped precariously against the bar. He had his legs crossed too far out in front of him while drinking from a half-filled plastic pitcher of beer. Except for the bleached hair, the Sinbad earrings, the man-tits, and the Urban Cool Metrosexual duds, he might’ve just ridden in off the range.

Henry laughed at that image.

Frank looked at him. “What?”

“Dude, you look like a regular cowpoke in here.”

Frank grinned. “Really?”

“No.”

“Thanks.”

“Not a problem, pardner.”

Frank laughed. He rolled clumsily around toward the bar and set his pitcher down on it without even falling. “You didn’t answer my question, Henry.”

Henry leaned sidelong beside him, and looked hard at Frank. “You’re the one who pushed me into the tent, as I recall.”

“Yeah,” Frank said as he lit another cigarette, “I’m smooth that way, baby.”

“Well, now I’m just confused.”

“You’re missing my point, dear boy.”

“You have a point?”

Frank smiled at him.

“Jesus, Frank. You make me swear I have no machinations on Alice, then you maneuver me into the starting lineup?”

“Yeah,” Frank said, giggling, “I’m a real piece of work.”

“So what the hell, Frank?”

“Why, Henry. I swear… I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”

“You’re stoned, Frank. But that doesn’t mean I won’t slap it out of you anyway. What’s up with the tent?”

Frank slid his elbow across the bar and propped his cheek in his hand most girlishly. “You say you have no designs on Alice. Yet I’ve been observing you watching Larry watch Alice.”

“What?”

“Ooh! Dare you deny it?”

Henry looked at him, at this man-girl, this longshoreman ballerina and his box full of tricks who was looking back at him with a variation of the same laser eyes Alice wielded. And in that moment, he lost his will to hide. He couldn’t explain it. There was something about this fool that made him uneasy and perfectly comfortable in the same breath. It was strange and as unexpected as lumps in a fart, but there it was all the same.

Instead of running away, Henry growled and looked back down the counter at the bartender. Finally, he said plainly, “I don’t trust her.”

“Really?” Frank asked too sweetly, “What’s to trust? Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but our Alice isn’t gay.”

“I know,” Henry said, still watching the bartender, “I mean, I figured as much. But that’s not the point. Larry should keep her distance, that’s all.”

“Why?”

Henry looked at Frank smiling back up at him. If the man had been clean-shaven and thirty years younger, he would’ve look positively precocious. “What do you mean, why?” he said, “Why shouldn’t it irritate me?”

“That’s what I’m asking you,” Frank said.

“What?”

“What what?”

“Look, Frank. Why don’t you just save us both the time, and me the irritation, and just say it already.”

“Henry, it couldn’t be any more obvious. You’re jealous.”

Henry felt another blush fan its way across his face. It was a sensation he was truly coming to hate. “That’s bull,” he said, looking over at Alice, “How can I be jealous? I barely know her.”

“Ding! Ding! Ding!” Frank said, clapping his hands.

Henry resisted the urge to slap him.

“Isn’t that exactly what I told you this morning?” Frank said through his cigarette.

Henry didn’t shoot back. He couldn’t shoot back. He was clean out of ammo. Maybe Frank was right. He was a little jealous. That would explain this new anger simmering just under the point of a boil.

Frank slipped the cigarette from his mouth and batted his eyes at him. “Of course,” he said, demurely, “That was before I fell head over heels in love with you.” Then he rushed in and pasted a sloppy kiss on Henry’s mouth.

Henry batted him away. “Damn you, Frank! Control yourself. Slut!”

Frank lifted his pitcher in salute. “Sorry, Henry, but you’re just so cute. And Alice looks so good on you, too.”

“What?”

“I think you two are like scheduled attractions. You’re set pieces. Matching towel and washcloth, bedspread and pillow slips, cup and saucer. Why the sight of you two together just makes me feel all mawkish.”

“Mawkish?” Henry said.

“Yes, dear. It means sentimentally syrupy.”

“I know what mawkish means, Frank! What I don’t know is why you suddenly changed tack.”

Frank downed the rest of his beer. He left a great deal of it on the front of his shirt. “Goodness,” he said, flipping the excess off his belly, “I’m such a little pig.”

Henry laughed. Despite the fact that it ran contrary to practically everything he hoped to achieve in his escape, he was actually starting to like Frank.

Frank started giggling. “Congratulations, Henry, dear. I’m stoned to the bloody boner.”

“You are such a piece of work, Frank,” Henry said as he lifted the remnants of his own drink. “Well, here’s to keeping Frank happy,” he said before he downed it. Then he waved to Larry for another round.

Frank rolled back on an elbow again. He looked up at Henry. “Seriously, you told me you didn’t have any designs on my sister.”

“For the love of—! Didn’t we just have this discussion?”

“Not sure you’re being completely candid with me here, Sweet Pea.”

The jukebox started whining on about a broken down tractor and late mortgage payments. It sounded just about like the last seven songs. Well, maybe it was a bit less nasally.

“All right, Frank. Yes, I like Alice a lot. In another life we might’ve been a Broadway musical. But this isn’t another life, so I guess we’ll have to settle for a Shakespearean tragedy. I’m hitting the road in the morning, and I have every intention of leaving her behind fully unscathed, so give it a rest.”

“Hmph,” Frank said seriously, “You’re a complete downer. And just where the hell are our drinks?”

Henry looked for Larry. She stood exactly where she’d been a minute earlier. She was looking straight at him but hadn’t moved a muscle. He waved again and pointed at his glass. “Do I need an appointment to get a bloody drink around here?”

Larry bristled. Henry was pretty sure she was liking him even less as she got to know him.

He turned back to Frank. “You’re damned protective of your sisters.”

“Of course, I am, stupid. They’re my sisters. I’m responsible. I am the towering icon of testicular fortitude and responsibility in the family now.” He snickered at that. “Testicular fortitude.” He practically doubled forward with laughter.

Larry walked up and slid another bourbon in front of Henry. She didn’t take the empty. “You doing okay, Princess?” she asked Frank.

Frank steadied himself and looked back at her. Still tittering, he said, “I will be as soon as you refill my drink, Tex.” He wiped his tears away with his cuff.

Larry gave Frank a look that had Henry thinking his Testicular Fortitude might be short-lived. “You’re drinking out of a pitcher, doll,” she said as she mopped the bar counter, “You asking for another pitcher or do you just want an empty glass?”

Frank put the pitcher down in the middle of the area she was cleaning. “Ooh, that’s a real conundrum there, Tex,” he said, “How does one define a drink? Is it the package the beverage is traditionally served in, or could it be the manner in which the patron consumes it?”

She was looking at him like she wasn’t sure she’d been insulted. Finally, she appeared to abandon the question altogether. “I’ll get you another pitcher, Princess. You can figure out your condom issue on your own.”

Frank fell laughing into Henry’s shoulder. “She thought I said condom,” he said between gasps, “That’s a real condom there, Tex.”

“Hilarious, Frank. You realize she could fill your pitcher with piss and kick the love out of you at the same time, right? I doubt she’d spill a drop, either. Not of piss, anyway.”

Frank pushed himself back into position. He wiped his eyes again and sighed. “My God, Henry. Am I not the funniest person you’ve ever met?”

“Yeah, a regular Carrot Top.”

Frank picked up his cigarette and drew a hit. As he blew it to the ceiling, he said, “Where was I?”

Henry glanced down the bar at Larry who glared back at him most enthusiastically. He was beginning to get a bad feeling about this. “You were asking me about my designs on Alice,” he said to Frank, “Again.”

“I was,” Frank said, “Yes, I absolutely was. You’re right. And how exactly did you answer that query?”

“I told you I was going to screw her nonstop for a month or two, then we were going to get married by an Elvis impersonator in Vegas, and once she pinched off four or five brats I was going to dump her for a twenty year old. You were happy as a little girl about it.”

“Henry, Henry, Henry! Lying is a such a dreadful sin.”

“If I hear that one more time, I swear I’m going to kill someone.”

Frank suddenly fell sober. He looked studiously up into the smoking ceiling. “Hm, haven’t been in church in about a century, but still pretty sure murder’s a sin, too.”

Murder. Hilarious. “Whatever,” Henry said, taking a punch from his new drink.

Frank threw his arms out and practically sang, “Well, that’s the point exactly, isn’t it?”

Henry looked at him. “Frank, you are one drunk bitch.”

Larry set a fresh pitcher in front of Frank. She didn’t say anything. She also didn’t linger. Neither point broke Henry’s heart.

“Henry, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but… I don’t believe Larry is particularly fond of you.”

“Yeah? I don’t think you’re on her dance card, either, Pokey.”

“Well, see there?” Frank said, holding his old, quarter-full pitcher up, “That’s just what I’m talking about. That’s it dead on, in fact.”

Henry watched him draw a deep draught from the lip of the pitcher. Frank’s eyes looked like little red buttons. “Just what in the hell are you talking about this time, Frank?”

“I see the way you look at Larry,” he said, squeezing Henry’s shoulder.

“This again?”

“You don’t like her. In fact, if I may be so bold, I believe you’re a wee bit jealous.”

“Frank, we just had this conversation.”

“I think you’re jealous as a little boy on a playground full of other little boys.”

“I have absolutely no comeback for that, Frank.” Henry looked over at Alice. She was dancing a three-way with Bridget and Ed.

“Then, you deny it?”

“I deny that I’d be jealous on a playground full of little boys, yes.”

“So!” Frank said, with a finger raised dramatically, “There’s the truth, then. You are indeed falling for Alice. Don’t deny it! I have a sense about these things.”

Henry rolled his eyes. Another soothsayer with a sense about things. “It must run in the family,” he said, “Alice said the same thing.”

“Family!” Frank drew another hit and blew it into space. “Family is everything, Henry, dear. Family is the universe, the world, the grains of sand on a beach, the little ridges on the paper at the edge of a sugar pack. Family is the reason we exist. Family is the duty that gives us divine purpose in an otherwise pointless existence.”

“Yeah, thanks for that little bit of clarity, Frank. Pretty sure I’ll never think about it again.”

“Where’s your family, Henry? You do have family, don’t you?”

Family. Almost funnier than murder.

“Tell me,” Frank pressed, “Where is your family, dear Henry? Where do they reside? Are you close to them? Do you honor your mother and father?” He was laughing again.

Henry didn’t want to go there. It was a boring subject, and this time, it wasn’t even his anger putting him off. The truth was, at this strange and exotic point in time and space, he just didn’t care. For the first time in years, the current moment was all that defined his world. Nothing else existed. Alice instructed him to leave his ghosts out in the parking lot, and that was exactly what he’d done.

“Henry?”

“Yes, Frank?”

“Where are your parents? Of course, I don’t mean right at this very second.” He snorted a laugh.

“My Mother’s dead. My Father lives in Wisconsin.”

“Siblings?”

“No, they weren’t related.”

Frank sprayed beer across the bar. When he finally stopped laughing, he said, “Siblings, you idiot. I mean, do you have any?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a brother somewhere. A couple sisters, too, I think.” He picked up his drink and took another generous slug. Frank began to speak, but Henry threw a hand across his mouth. “Don’t even ask me where they are, Frank, because I don’t care, and I find it tedious to think about.”

Frank nodded. Henry removed his hand.

“Henry?”

“Oh for the love of… yes, Frank?”

“Do you talk to your siblings?”

Henry sighed. “Sure, Frank. Every important holiday. Both of them, in fact. Every Christmas Eve and every damned birthday. It’s like a ritual. It’s the highlight of my year. I usually dress for the occasion.”

Frank hoisted his pitcher again. He wasn’t holding it as steadily now. “You are one sarcastic son of a bitch, Henry. Do you know that?”

The song shifted on the jukebox. “Oh good!” Henry said, “I’ll bet it’s another whiny song about, wait… wait… Yes! Unrequited love and adultery! What a refreshing change. Gee, I sure hope there’s something about a dog getting run over in this one.”

Frank snorted.

Henry feigned offense. “What? It’s an unexpected variation on the theme, don’t you think? It’s practically making my night with its boldness.”

“I think you should call your family.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you knew my family.”

“They’re blood, Henry. Even if they’ve somehow managed to insult you, you need to learn to forgive and forget. Family is family is family is family is family.”

“You know what’s funny, Frank? That’s just what Abel said right before Cain used his head to sharpen a rock.”

“Whatever. You should make amends. You’ll regret it someday if you don’t.”

Alice walked in off the dance floor just in the nick of time.


TWENTY EIGHT

HENRY PLAYED WITH HIS BOURBON AS HE WATCHED ALICE DANCE WITH FRANK.

The jukebox was once again ruminating about love gone south, but this time it was a has-been rock singer ruining the sentiment. Still, Henry had to admit he was enjoying himself despite his best efforts to the contrary. Alice was better than all the medicine in the world. She didn’t take any crap and didn’t dish out any guilt. She lived in the moment, and she pulled him into it with her.

She could have been a true gift.

It was too bad it could never last.

He took a sip of his drink. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying as he’d have liked. They’d been here a couple hours, and he was only on his third drink. He wondered if that was good or bad. Surely, his anger wasn’t divorcing him, was it? It would be like cutting off a foot.

The song mercifully ended. Frank meandered over to the jukebox and lit another cigarette. Alice drifted through the smoke toward Henry. She was smiling like a prom queen.

“You make a handsome pair,” Henry said as she saddled the barstool beside him.

She took a sip from her rum and coke. It was the same one she’d first ordered. Larry had too happily re-iced it twice. Henry didn’t think it was service as usual. Larry kept throwing Alice no-extra-charge smiles and winks that he was pretty sure weren’t on the public menu.

“I just adore gay men,” Alice said, smiling. She leaned over and patted Henry’s big red S. “Maybe that’s why I’m so attracted to you.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot.”

She looked at his moldering bourbon. Then she sent those sneaky green eyes up to reconnoiter his.

“What?” he said.

“I’m not particularly impressed with your drinking tonight, Superman.”

“You expected more, eh?”

“You’re a superhero, baby. You’re a legend. You’ve got a pretty tall reputation standing over you.”

“Is that right?”

“That is so right. How do you expect to impress me? You’re not living up to my expectations, dear. Maybe you’re just not the bad, bad man I thought you were.”

For some reason, he thought of Mrs. Pena, and it made him laugh.

Alice leaned in and grinned at him. “What?”

“Nothing. You just reminded me of someone I met at the rest area.”

“At the rest area?” she said, smiling coyly.

“Don’t start,” he warned.

“Who was it?”

“Mrs. Pena.”

“Mrs. Pena?”

“Yeah. Mrs. Ximena J. Pena, MSW”

Her eyes narrowed with her smile. “Really? MSW? I had no idea such a respectful clientele hanged out at rest areas.”

“Don’t be crude,” he said. He meant it. Mrs. Pena was sacred territory.

“Most sorry, Henry,” she said like she meant it, “So, you met Mrs. Ximena J. Pena, MSW at a New Mexico rest area in the middle of the night and…?”

“And I spent some time with her before you picked me up on the highway. She’s a New Mexico Social Worker and part-time counselor. She… well, I know this is going to sound nuts, but… she mistook me for a homeless person.”

Alice gasped and threw a hand to her mouth. “No!”

“Sadly, yes.”

“How is that even possible? She thought that hip, styling young man I picked up was a bum? I simply refuse to believe it.” She smothered back a laugh.

“Hilarious.” Henry took a sip of his bourbon. It tasted like turpentine. He washed the taste out with his warm beer.

“So, do tell,” Alice pressed, “What did this social worker want?”

“She tried to get me a ride to a shelter. With a state police escort, I might add for hilarity’s sake.”

“But you predictably refused her offer.”

“She wasn’t giving me the choice,” he said as he thought about it, “I practically had to get on my hands and knees and beg her not to do it. I mean, she was dialing the phone even as I pleaded.”

“That’s precious, dear. Honestly. It’s hilarious.”

Henry shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. I should’ve run like hell the moment I met her. But, truth be told, once I convinced her not to have me physically escorted to the nearest shelter, we hit it off. We talked for a good while. She was a damned good listener, which is especially funny since I’m not a particularly good talker. But she sure as hell managed to pull it out of me.”

“That’s sweet, Henry.”

“She gave me some advice. Not that I actually needed any advice, of course.”

“Well, of course not! Don’t be absurd.”

“I mean, look at me. Do I look like I need anyone else’s guidance, for Christ’s sake?”

“Land sakes, no! You’re man with a mission.”

“Damn straight,” he said, tapping his chest, “You can’t wear a Superman shield like this if you’re wishy-washy.”

“Of course not. Do continue.”

“Nothing much more to say. She fed me some pizza she had in her car, gave me a soda, and we talked.”

“She bought Henry a soda,” Alice said in her best talking-to-the-dog voice, “How sweet is that?”

“Alice,” Henry said carefully, “I swear to God, if you don’t—”

“My goodness, Superman,” she said as she again patted his cheek, “For a superhero, you are so sensitive.”

Henry tried to give her The Look, but couldn’t pull it off. “In the end,” he continued as instructed, “She even offered to put me in contact with an AA group near where I live.”

“Which you again predictably declined.”

He didn’t appreciate the sarcasm. “I’m not an alcoholic, Alice.”

“I know that, Henry.”

“I’m a weekender. I binge on the weekends like a frat boy. Not that it’s a good thing, but it’s not so bad that it screws with my life.”

“Not if your life’s goal culminates in midnight excursions down western interstates with no memory of how you got there.”

He looked at her. Hard. “Alice, I’m sharing this with you. We’re not even in the game. You should try to avoid being an asshole.”

His words surprised him. So did his anger. He picked his drink up again, but it only loitered in his hand.

Alice lifted her drink. “You’re right. I apologize.” She took a sip and fluttered her eyes at him.

He fingered the ice dying in his drink. “It’s okay,” he said softly. The words were intended more for him than her. “I’m just feeling a little touchy tonight.”

“Well, of course you are.” She took another sip.

“What does that mean?” he said.

“Weekends are bad juju for you.”

A chill seized him. He looked down at her. “You know juju means talisman,” he said, “Right?” Dodge and evade.

She just looked back up at him. “You know exactly what I mean, Mr. Smith.”

Sadly, he did. And he didn’t know how to respond. She’d said it as matter-of-factly as pointing out his hair color. He could only look at her, at those eyes, at that knowing twinkle that told him he’d never be capable of holding secrets from her, and he was suddenly very afraid.

“Don’t start pouting, Henry,” she said.

“I told you, I don’t pout.”

“Would you like to know my theory?”

“Alice’s Complete Theory of Henry?”

“Yes. But if I tell you, you’ll have to keep it under wraps. At least until I’m published.”

“Go on,” he said. He prayed she didn’t.

“Okay,” she began anyway, “So here it is. I think you probably have plenty to do during the week, right? To keep you distracted, I mean.”

Jesus, he thought, this can’t possibly end well. Then again, he was already in this deep. How much more effort to just finish it out? In truth, it was perfectly in keeping with his plans, wasn’t it? Search, destroy, flee into the night?

“Go on,” he said again. Yet, for reasons he couldn’t divine, he was still praying she wouldn’t.

“Stop me if I get too close to the target, okay?”

“I’ll politely wave the moment I start to bleed, ma’am.” Maybe he should just put his hand up now.

“Alright, Henry, dear,” she said, smiling too sweetly, “But please keep in mind that you gave me permission.”

Yeah, like a deathrow inmate gives the electrocutioner permission to plug in the chair.

“I’m guessing you probably work a good fifty hours a week,” she started, “Some weeks more, rarely less. When you get off work, you fight the traffic for a while, then grab a couple hours at the gym. You work out harder than you need to. You go home after that. You finish up your emails, maybe pay some bills online. Then you throw a frozen plastic wedge in the microwave, or open a can of prepackaged paste, and eat it by yourself at a cluttered breakfast bar, probably with the news chirping on the TV, even though you don’t pay attention to it. After that, you iron your clothes for work tomorrow, maybe try to catch a little tube time, maybe just stand at a window and stare out into the world thinking of all the things you should be doing. And then, before you know it, it’s time for bed. You wash back a couple pills with lukewarm tap water, something strong enough to make you sleep without dreaming. Eight hours later, you awaken from your oblivion and start the process all over again.”

He studied those shrewd eyes beaming back at him. There was nothing he could say, no words that could make her observations seem like a stretch. He felt like a first grader trying to debate a professor. Every single word was a direct hit. A direct. Fucking. Hit.

She took a sip from her drink. Then another, bigger this time. She studied the sweating glass for a moment, then set it precisely into the old wet circle on the cocktail napkin.

“So?” she said after a moment, “Am I close?”

The green eyes peering out at him from behind a veil of perfectly blonde hair held all the mystery of a fortune-teller. And as he struggled to free himself from her tractor beams, he wondered for just the briefest moment if maybe she could hear his thoughts.

“Well?” she pressed.

Finally, he drew a sigh and lifted his drink up to hers. “Alice,” he said as the glasses clinked, “You sank my battleship.”

“That close?”

“Bada boom, bada bing.”

“Land sakes, I really am good.”

Henry took another sip of his medicine. It was tasting a little better now. His apprehension was nearly at the boil point, yet instead of following his usual award winning strategy of defiance and flight, he stayed right where he was. Instead of fleeing, he steadied himself and started groping his way to higher ground.

“Time to fess up, Alice,” he said carefully, “Are you a detective? The truth, now. Have you been tailing me?”

She giggled at that. “You wish.”

“How about some kind of voodoo priestess? Are you a witch? I’ve seen the hair you wear to work.”

“That might be a wee bit closer.”

“Can you read the bumps on my head and tell my fate? Can you see into my past and divine my future?”

“I so wish I could.”

“Yeah, me too. If you were psychic, you might be able to tell me where my car is.”

She laughed again. Seemed like she was always laughing.

“Seriously,” he said, “You’re making me a little nervous, because if you actually can read my mind? I may be in some serious trouble. Especially after this morning at the pools.”

“No obvious lies,” she said, “Your eyes were everywhere except on me.”

He actually felt a bit embarrassed for that. It was too obviously true. “I told you, I’m a gentleman.”

“It’s only gentlemanly if the lady doesn’t want you to look.”

“Whatever.” He again clinked his glass against hers. “Finish your prophesying, O Mistress of the Night.”

“As you will. Where was I?”

“You finished the week. You may now proceed to ruining my weekends.” He braced himself with another slug of bourbon.

“You sure?”

“Please, let the carnage begin.” Why the hell not? He still had his twenty-dollar bill, and there was a whole wall of medicine simmering in the mirrored light just there behind the bar.

“Okay,” she began a bit too tentatively, “The weekends are like open season on Henry. Isn’t that right? The weekends are when you can’t outrun your fears?”

The humor had taken leave of her face. The look replacing it was too serious by yards. Henry felt like he should maybe back away. Hell, he should probably blow through the front door and keep on running until he hit seawater.

She tapped the lip of her glass with her nail. Her eyes were targeting him. “Shall I keep going?”

He laughed, though half-heartedly, which he immediately regretted. It made him sound weak. He looked over at Ed and Bridget slow dancing, while Frank continued plugging away at the jukebox.

“Henry?”

He looked back at her. She made him afraid, and he didn’t know if he hated it or loved it. His stomach was on fire again, but he didn’t resist it. Let it burn. It had a right to. The dark rider was approaching. Hope was a weakness.

“Hello? Earth to Henry?”

He looked deep into those green kryptonite eyes. “You think you know?” he said seriously, “Then just go ahead. Tell me. There’s nothing you can do except drive me away.”

She nodded seriously. Then she said, “All right, Henry.”

She looked down at her finger circling the rim of her glass. He had the sense she was plotting a trajectory.

“On the weekends there aren’t any distractions,” she said without looking up, “You sit in your empty house, and if feels just like a prison cell. You avoid your friends because they’re boring. At least, that’s what you tell yourself. Truth is they simply remind you of everything you had and everything don’t have any more, and, worse, everything you’re not ever going to have again. You have no work to turn to, because, after all, it is the weekend, and there have to be some boundaries, right? You don’t like sports, and everything else on TV is even more useless, not that you have the attention span for it anyway. You don’t even have the ambition to hit the gym. It’s like sailing off the edge of the world, isn’t it? Friday afternoon, you stop at the local dive where they know you, but don’t care how drunk you get and care even less why you do. You park it there on that barstool, the one at the end, the one in the shadows beneath the big TV, the one far out of the path of the local civilians trotting back and forth between emptying their tanks and starting the refill. Then, after your third or fourth drink, you raise your sails and you drift out of sight of shore, and you don’t hit the beach again until sometime late Sunday night when your liver finally hangs up its apron. And when you stagger into work Monday morning, the consequences of all the hiding you did on the weekend is just smoking wreckage.”

The air felt like liquid. Breathing was no longer satisfying. His heart beat so hard, it nearly wasn’t beating at all. It was like being in a dream, like sitting on a stage with no clothes on while someone told an audience of millions your story. Henry Lowenherz Smith, this is your fucked up life!

Her eyes were mirrors. She had the patience of Job. He knew he could never out-wait her, and he sure as hell couldn’t outrun her, and he’d never been more afraid or more thrilled in his life.

“Henry?” she asked too carefully, “Are you all right?”

He steadied himself. He drew a slow breath and braced himself against the pain welling behind his eyes.

“Henry?”

It took a moment, but he eventually found the strength to look directly at her.

“Are you alright?”

“What the hell, Alice?” he said at last.

What else could he say? There was nothing there to argue. If you shit on the floor and someone sees it, you both know who did it, right? So there’s really nothing you can say to them except ‘looks like I just shit on the floor’. Sometimes honesty is the only feasible policy.

Alice beamed that special smile up at him, the one he figured she kept in reserve just for times when she needed to destroy his super powers completely.

“Game on, Henry.”

His stomach shot out through his feet. It was the last thing on earth he expected. “What?” he said.

“Game on. It’s my turn.”

He lifted his bourbon and examined at it. He felt like a rocket battering its way back into the atmosphere. Beyond his windshield, the earth was grew bigger and bigger, but he wasn’t slowing down. He was coming in too fast. He was starting to burn up.

“You can say no, Henry.”

He flagged the bartender, waving two fingers at his dying medicine.

“You can say no,” Alice said again.

“Actually, I don’t think I can,” he said, looking at her, “I can’t say no. I’m already falling, and it’s not going to be a gentle touchdown, so it doesn’t matter what you say now, does it? You can’t make it worse. In fact, maybe you can just make it end faster and spare me the excess drama.”

She stepped closer to him. The fragrance of her hair heaved the oxygen out of the room. She traced the diamond shape of his Superman emblem with her finger. Her smell and the pressure of her fingertip were the only physical sensations on earth.

“So here’s the question, Henry,” she said, still without looking at him, “As difficult as the weekends are, as adrift as you feel when you don’t have the routine of work to distract you? Why did you quit your job?”

Henry looked over at Frank slow dancing alone on the dance floor before the juke. Ed and Bridget were grinding a nearly motionless circle in the exact same spot they’d been in for the last thirty minutes.

“How you doing, honey?”

Henry flinched at the voice. He looked over to find a fresh tumbler of medicine squatting on the bar and the bartender laying her eyes all over Alice. Again! The bitch left a trail of drool every time she walked by Alice, and he was suddenly good and plenty sick of it.

Larry leaned onto her elbows before Alice. She had Alice’s drink between her coarse hands, playing it back and forth seductively. “How about I sweeten that drink up for you?” she said, “No charge for you, honey.”

Henry had enough. “She’s with me, pal!”

The bartender barely glanced at him. “Is that right?”

Henry laughed. “Yeah, that is right. It’s absolutely right. So why don’t you be a good girl and back the fuck off?”

Larry pulled back from the bar like a coiling snake. “What did you say to me?”

“I said Alice is with me. So how about you go wash some dishes or swab some urinals or clean out some ashtrays or whatever it is bartenders do when they aren’t irritating the customers? You’re getting a little tedious, and nobody likes tedious bartenders. They’re boring.”

His words were still burning on the bar counter as Larry backed away. Henry had startled himself as much as her. He hadn’t even seen the words coming. One moment he was minding his own business, the next he was eviscerating Larry. What the hell?

Alice just gaped at him with her hands over her mouth. Her eyes were big as saucers.

“I won’t tolerate rude bartenders,” he said to her as he watched Larry backing down the bar.

“Henry,” she said breathlessly, “Way to save my honor.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. His face felt on fire. He could feel his pulse beating a pan behind his eyes. “I don’t know where that came from. Seriously. I mean, I’m not even drunk.”

She continued smiling up at him. There was a lot more excitement in her eyes now. “It’s okay,” she said, “In fact, it was actually pretty darned flattering. Phew, I think I just got hot.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said, looking down at her drink. He felt confused. “I mean, it’s not my business. If you want to call her back and—”

“Oh, hell no! You think I’d trade you in now? After that? Sweetheart, you just earned that big red S on your chest.”

He felt himself blush. Again!

“You got all territorial on her ass, Superman. Color Alice impressed.”

He didn’t know what to say.

“You Henry, me Alice.” She fell into another laugh.

The music stopped. The jukebox clicked and hummed as it searched for its next means of torture.

Henry couldn’t take his eyes off Alice. He suffered an overpowering urge to kiss her. Her lips seemed to be waving him in for a landing. It’d be so easy, so very, very easy.

Instead, he grabbed his fresh drink and murdered it. Enjoy that, he told himself, there won’t likely be another safe drink offered tonight. He glanced back at Larry. She stood way down at the other end of the bar, leaning on one elbow and talking to a couple cowpokes. She glared back at him like they weren’t going to be friends anytime soon. Her pals didn’t look like they were getting in line, either.

The jukebox kicked on again. The horn intro and the all-male chorus didn’t bode well. It sounded like something seriously glum was about to erupt. And then… a woman singing about his cheating heart. It felt like an accusation.

“Patsy!” Alice shrieked.

Henry nearly threw his drink.

She dragged his hand from the bar. “I love Patsy! Dance with me, Superman!”

He tried to resist, but sometime in the last fifteen minutes she’d become all-powerful. He was already halfway to the dance floor before he found the will to resist. “What about the game?” he protested.

It was too late. She was already in his arms. Her body slipped as perfectly into his as a recovered piece of puzzle. She nuzzled her face up into his neck. Her hair smelled like a rain shower.

He ordered himself to resist her, to push her out to respectable distance, to reestablish the green zone between them, but it was too late. She’d keyed in the secret code. She’d rendered him human. She had him, if only for the moment.

Defeated, he drew her completely into him. What choice did he have now but to surrender? And as he held her close, a blanket of peace settled over him, the world respectfully took its leave, and he never wanted to be anywhere else again.


TWENTY NINE

HENRY SWAM UP FROM THE DREAMY FUGUE THAT WAS THEM.

The bar hadn’t changed since the last time he saw it. Still dark and gaudy, still haunted by the same shadowy patrons, still fogged in smoke.

He felt blissfully numb. He couldn’t say how many songs they’d been dancing to. It might’ve been five, it might’ve have been five hundred. Time didn’t seem to live here anymore.

Alice stirred in his arms. She pulled her head away from him. It felt like an amputation. Her face glowed with that same glazed, thrilled look people wear after they’ve been making out for hours and only separate long enough for a pee and a smoke.

His fingers sifted through her hair. Her mouth was right there, just a breath away. He wanted to roll into it more than he wanted to breathe. As he fought to resist that inhumane temptation, he wondered how he’d been coerced into so sorry a state of powerlessness. Was it the medicine? Was it the woman? Was it the circumstances? He wondered if it really mattered. When a ship is sinking, what difference does it make how the leak came to be?

“Do you concede?” she asked him. She sounded like she just woke up.

They continued slowly turning for a few moments as he translated the question. The effort proved useless. “Concede?” he said.

“The game. You haven’t answered yet.”

“The game. I forgot.”

She buried her face back into him. In spite of their intimacy, nothing about this Heroic Dance felt overtly sexual. It felt more like comfortable, or familiar, or even just safe. Then again, perhaps that was the very definition of sexual. Maybe his relationship with her was the most sexual experience he’d ever had. That despite the fact they hadn’t even brushed lips yet and, in just a few short hours, were destined to separated forever.

She gave him a sharp squeeze. “Are you conceding?” she whispered into his neck, “The clock is ticking.”

He felt her warm breath on his neck, and he nearly swooned for it. “What… what was the question?”

She squeezed him again. Harder.

“My job,” he whispered, “Right. Should’ve seen that one coming.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly right. It’s the obvious next step in your scheme to unravel me, Luthor.”

“Cry me a river, Henry. You’re stalling.”

He nestled his nose into her hair and breathed deeply of it. “I quit my job because I was tired of being a poser,” he whispered, “Given your brilliant powers of deduction, I’m sure you’ll soon have that one figured out.”

The song on the juke shifted. Now that dead guy with the sunglasses was going on about the Lonely and how fucked up it was to be one of them. Alice snuggled in tighter. She let slip a little moan, then a muttered word. He assumed she was approving of the song.

They slowly gyrated to the melody. Every turn felt like another tick in the countdown. He tried to focus on the perfection of the moment. He wanted to commit it irrevocably to memory before it took its last breath, because the end was coming. The end was always coming.

“Keep going,” she whispered as if reading his mind again, “Explain.”

He thought about it. The rationale ran too deep to ever fully explain. He doubted he really understood his own pathology.

“I don’t really know,” he said because he knew she wouldn’t tolerate his silence much longer, “I think maybe I got tired of the games. Tired of listening to clients and pretending I knew what they wanted, or that I even cared what they wanted. Tired of showing them the fancy pictures and throwing the prefabricated words at them. I hated my life, and I hated everyone I knew because of it.”

He stopped their movement. He was beginning to feel a little sick.

“Don’t stop,” Alice whispered.

He conceded to her demand. He buried his cheek back into her hair and watched the jukebox’s lights wincing to the music. “You want to know the truth?” he whispered to her, “The honest, mature, adult-looking-in-the-mirror truth?”

She squeezed him.

“Truth is I just ran out of ways to punish myself, and the job was getting in the way.”

She squeezed him again, but didn’t say anything.

“I wasn’t doing anybody any good there. Least of all me. I’ve left a trail of misery behind me as far back as I can see. I decided I’ve been doing the coward’s shuffle long enough. Time to cut it all loose and choose a path. Time to re-enter safely or crash and burn, and I’ve no faith the first will happen and no fear of the second.”

Alice shifted her face toward him. “Henry?”

Henry braced himself. “Yes, Alice?”

“I hope it doesn’t turn out like the cartoon.”

“What cartoon?”

“Where the duck saws the branch off between himself and the tree.”

Henry felt a chill. What was it with her? One stupid analogy to a cartoon and she’d perfectly encapsulated his predicament. She seemed to know all the shortcuts to his weaknesses.

His hand slid down along the silky curve of her spine, into the small of her back, and on toward points unknown. He caught it the instant before it slipped past the warning signs and into the dangerous hills: I’d turn back if I were you! That wasn’t a safe place for him. Not tonight. Not the way he was feeling. He shifted his hand up higher on her back.

“Henry?”

Her voice saved him. He pulled her closer. “I know,” he whispered into her ear, “You want your question.”

“Yes, please.”

He rested his chin on her head as he looked up into the dusty darkness. “Okay,” he said, “Let me think.”

“Hurry. I’m getting tired.”

A dozen questions blew into his mind. What’s her favorite movie? Her favorite dessert? What’d she do on the weekends? Had she ever stolen anything? Had she ever miscarried? Had she ever committed adultery? Had she ever killed anyone?

Then he settled for, “Why do you call me Superman?”

She lifted those perfect green eyes toward him. “Are you even trying to win?” she whispered.

“No, Alice. I’m just trying not to lose.”

She rolled back into him. “That one’s a bit obvious. I call you Superman because of the heroic figure you cut that first night I adopted you.”

“Adopted?” He laughed at that. “That’s flattering. Thank you.”

“You were standing out there in your secret identity looking so alone and pathetic. It broke my heart. I took you in because I felt sorry for you.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes. And I still feel sorry for you. That’s the only reason I’ve been hanging with you all day. And so you don’t get too cocky, you should know this is just a pity dance.”

He began to retort when someone yelled out.

Henry froze.

Someone else screamed.

Henry wheeled reflexively toward the sound, ushering Alice behind him in the same motion. A chair caromed off a table and bounced toward him. He deflected it with his foot. Ed materialized at his side.

He followed the trajectory of the chair toward the fight. Two guys were struggling with a third. The third was Frank.


THIRTY

HENRY DRAGGED FRANK BACK FROM THE FIGHT.

Frank thrashed against Henry’s hold while howling a list of profanities that would’ve blushed a longshoreman.

Ed had his arms up under and around one cowboy’s shoulders. He held him securely from behind so the dude couldn’t hit him. Unfortunately, the man still had full use of his legs. He doubled forward, heaving Ed up on his back. Ed rode him like a bronco face-first into an empty booth.

Henry had Frank in a similar pose, pretty much mounted from behind. Frank was a hell of a lot stronger than he expected. It was all he could to keep him restrained, and so he found himself a bit incapacitated when the second cowboy came rushing at them with his fists swinging. Frank managed to twist out of the way just as the first blow landed.

Henry was more impressed by the white light than the pain. He was on the ground amid a tangled dam of broken chairs, though he had no memory of taking a seat. He wondered if he was bleeding.

Someone yelled nearby. Someone else yelled back. Something crashed.

He somehow picked himself up from the debris. His jaw was throbbed viciously. He turned to see Frank with a cowboy pinned down on his back against a booth table. Frank was not only holding his own, he was beating the cowboy mercilessly. Henry was impressed.

Ed, on the other hand, had misplaced his advantage. Worse, he was already starting to look like a blood donation gone bad. He was laid out on the floor beside the booth with the first cowboy straddling his chest. By the way the dude was wailing on Ed’s face, Henry didn’t think Ed was going to mind the van so much tonight after all.

Henry grabbed the cowboy by his ponytail and dragged him off Ed. The dude shrieked weirdly as Henry used that rope of hair to catapult him into the tables. A sitting patron grabbed his drink just as his table was knocked away beneath him. Still sitting in the tableless chair, the patron looked at Henry and grinned amiably as he lifted his drink in salute. Henry waved a wad of hair back at him.

The cowboy didn’t get up. It didn’t look like he’d be getting up any time soon. Henry’s next to-do item was to pull Frank off the other cowboy before he did jail-time level damage. As he moved in to help, he quickly scanned his surroundings.

The shadows standing at the bar stood leaning over their drinks just as they’d been doing all night, smokes in mouths, watching the fracas like it was Karaoke as usual. Another few shadows still played pool in the back corner. Four others sat in the back around a table. One of them still shuffled the cards. The guy who’d lost his table was carefully picking his way through the debris on his long march to the bar.

No one in the joint seemed to give a crap about the fight. Frank was still working on the second cowboy like an angry housekeeper beating a rug. Enough was enough. He couldn’t let Frank kill the man. It’d ruin what had been shaping up to be a fairly nice evening. He grabbed Frank by a scruff of shirt and dragged him back.

He hadn’t pulled Frank back three feet when something cracked him across the back of the head. The world exploded with light. Henry landed hard on his knees. The ground seemed to be dissolving beneath him. For just an instant, he wondered if he was still back in that industrially tiled bathroom at the gas station.

He heard another crack of wood and a sharp cry somewhere behind him. A moment later, the second cowboy stumbled past him and dropped into a booth. Henry could tell by the grace of the man’s gait that he’d be calling it quits for the night.

Alice was suddenly kneeling at his side, though he couldn’t remember how she came to be there. She held a red cloth up to his head. Or was it just spotted red? He couldn’t quite focus clearly enough to say. He thought she might be saying something to him, but couldn’t make out the words.

Frank was yelling behind him. There was another crack followed by another scream.

Henry grabbed the table’s edge and somehow managed to stand up. His head spun in both directions. Alice had his arm. He tried to push her back, but she wouldn’t give it up. When he finally managed to turn around, he saw Larry. She was a few paces back standing over a fresh pile of Frank. She had a short bat in her hand and a pit bull in her eyes. Henry guessed that this was probably about as happy as she ever looked.

She was slapping the bat against her palm and laughing. “You still up, boss?” she said directly to him, “Man, you must have one thick head.”

She slithered toward him.

Henry looked around for a weapon but found only disappointment. He had no choice but to face her empty handed and hope for divine intervention.

She continued slapping that bat against her hand as she approached. “I don’t tolerate no rough stuff in my bar, boss,” she said, grinning, “Anyone starts up, and I’m more’n likely the one finishes it.”

Alice was still at Henry’s side, still holding that red cloth to his head. He realized it was wet. “Get behind me, Alice,” he said, guiding her back.

Alice resisted.

“Alice, get back. Please.”

Larry crept closer.

“Alice!” he said again.

“Yeah, Alice,” Larry said, “Get back. We don’t want to get any meat chunks in that pretty blonde hair of yours.”

Henry saw The Look blossom across Alice’s face, and he recognized it for the trouble it was just a moment too late. Before he could stop her, she’d rushed in and laid a teeth rattling slap down on Larry.

Larry looked like she was having trouble processing what happened. When her gaze quickly focused in again, it didn’t look like an apology was in the works. Then she backhanded Alice hard enough to send her spinning.

“This ain’t your business, bitch!” she snarled as Alice rolled into Henry.

Henry barely caught her before she fell. The color seemed to have bled out of the room. He felt like he was out of his body, like he was watching himself from somewhere higher than the bar. He watched himself settle Alice into a chair. He watched himself turn to face Larry. He watched himself march into battle.

The bat came down at him, but he caught it with his bare hand. Larry looked at him like he’d just turned water into wine. Henry wrenched it from her grip. For an instant, he only stood there with her wrist locked in his fist. He felt like he was looking through a tunnel. Nothing existed except that shitty crew cut and those snake-like eyes, and those perfect white teeth that he wanted to litter the floor with.

He released her wrist and heaved the bat across the bar. It ended in a barrage of shattered mirrors and broken bottles.

Larry threw her hands up like bared fangs. She crouched offensively before him, grinning like she’d just set the cat on fire. “Bring it on, boss,” she hissed, “I was born for this shit. I’m ex-paramilitary, baby.”

“Is that right?” Henry said, “Well, I didn’t even marry into this shit, and I’m unemployed.”

Larry slipped in with a wicked roundhouse that Henry only barely deflected. She immediately threw another one down on him. He twisted away from that one and caught it off his shoulder. He couldn’t feel his arm anymore. The woman had sledgehammers for fists.

Her third strike left fire in its trail. He hit the wall face first. For a moment, he wasn’t even sure he was standing. He realized the cartoons weren’t lying; he had to shake his head to clear the stars. He turned around, though still held back tight against the wall for support.

Larry stood right in front of him now. Henry pushed himself upright and brought his working hand up, though he didn’t have much hope it’d be of any use. He wasn’t even sure which one of her to hit.

She threw a hand against his chest and shoved him back against the wall. Then she grinned at him and said, “Say goodnight, bitch!

She cocked her fist back like she was calling up the fury of the gods. But before she could unleash it someone grabbed her wrist from behind. Larry’s venomous smile melted into surprise.

Henry seized the opportunity. He plowed his fist into her face like a born-again boxer, like salvation waited for him on the other side of her skull, like she was the living incarnation of every bad thing that’d ever happened to him.

He was pretty sure her feet left the ground. The table legs snapped when she landed, and the table top slumped to the side, sending her remains skidding into the same pile of broken chairs they’d all been rolling in since the fight began.

He stood there, fighting for air as he waited for her to get up. He didn’t suffer much disappointment when she didn’t.

An almost supernatural silence hung over the bar. No one talked. No one moved. Even the jukebox had finally shut up. Somewhere in the distance, he heard a sliver of mirror tinkle free behind the bar.

Alice rushed into Henry and buried her face in his chest. “Henry, are you all right?” He felt her tears soaking through the Superman shield on his shirt.

“I’m all right, Alice,” he said, “Thanks to you.”

As he held her, Henry watched the shadows shifting around the bar. For the first time since the fight began, it seemed the shadows had taken an interest. He quickly realized why: He’d put their villainous hero, their Little Bill down. He knew that wasn’t how the mob expected it to play out.

They moved slowly, tentatively, easing their way organically along the perimeter. They moved with primal intent, like they were organizing without even knowing it. It felt like a scene from a zombie movie when the last survivors are cornered by the undead, and the audience awaits the scheduled miracle.

“Alice,” he said as he watched them, “Get everyone together. We’re leaving.”

She looked up at him. Her eyes were wet but focused. Any fear or worry she might’ve shown a heartbeat ago was gone. “Give me the keys,” she said.

Henry dug Fort Drift’s keys from his jeans and pressed them into her palm. His hand lingered on hers for just a moment. She was cool under pressure. He wondered why he expected anything else.

Finally, he let go. “Help Frank get up. Hurry. We’re getting the hell out of here.”

The shadows slinked along the walls on both sides of him. He grabbed the broken seat of a chair and smashed it hard against the floor. That drove them back a bit. Then he broke two thick wooden legs from it and thrust them out to his sides like torches.

“All right,” he yelled at them, “You all best listen to me, and I mean listen really fucking close! We’re leaving now! Any of you tries to stop us, any of you gets in my way, and I swear to God I’ll leave your skulls in so many pieces you’ll never find them all.”

A few of the shadows stopped. A few kept coming.

Henry heaved one of the chair legs at the bar. The remnants of the middle mirror shattered dramatically, while a few bottles leapt to freedom from a collapsing shelf.

“I mean it!” he yelled, “I’ve already got blood on my hands! A little more won’t make them any dirtier!”

All the shadows stopped at that. A few actually started backing away.

Henry glanced over at Alice helping Frank up. Bridget already had Ed’s arm over her shoulder. Alice looked back and sent him a wink. They were ready.

Henry turned back to the ghouls. “We’re leaving now,” he said, “We’re going right through that corner door over there. Any of you follows us, any of you so much as smiles at us, and I will kill you dead!”

Alice and Bridget moved for the door, but the two shadows from the end of the bar moved in their way. They were Larry’s pals from earlier.

Henry looked at them. “You going to try me, boys?” he shouted, “Because I am so starting to enjoy this!”

They looked at him. They didn’t advance, but they also didn’t retreat.

Henry’s patience died. He cocked his arm back and heaved the other chair leg at them. It flipped across the room like a dagger. The blunt end smacked a bull’s-eye in the middle of the left shadow’s chest. The man released a breathy grunt as he stumbled backward. He hit the wall and collapsed.

Henry looked at his partner. “You got something to say to me, boy?” he shouted, “Because I can’t hear you from clean over there! Maybe you ought to mosey a little closer so we can talk face to face.”

The shadow backed off. That cleared the path for Bridget, Alice, and their walking wounded. Alice looked back at Henry.

“Go on, Alice. It’s okay.”

Henry kept up the rear as the women made the door with their casualties. Once they’d cleared it, he turned back to the ghouls. “Anyone calls the police on us after we leave, and I swear I will come back and I will hunt you down. I will find out where you live and I will burn your bloody houses down with you inside!”

There was a moment’s silence. Then a voice called timidly, “Sheriff.”

Henry couldn’t see who’d said it. “What?” he said.

“Sheriff,” the voice said again, “We don’t have police here. We have a sheriff.”

“Sheriff, police, do I look like I could possibly give a fuck?”

“No.”

“It was a rhetorical question, fool!”

“Sorry.”

Henry walked over to the slumped carcass of Larry. He dug the rumpled twenty out of his pocket and threw it down at her. “That’s for the bourbon,” he said. Then he swiped his mouth and spit a bloody wad down at her. “And there’s your tip.”

As he made for the door, he spotted a neglected bottle of scotch squatting on the bar. Larry was probably pouring from it when the fight broke out. A couple shadows backed quickly out of his way as he walked over and grabbed it. Then he crossed back and threw the saloon door open. But before he left, he turned back to the shadows.

“And when she comes to?” he said, pointing at Larry, “Tell her she shouldn’t be flirting with another dude’s date. It’s ill-mannered and rude, and I do not tolerate rude bartenders.”


THIRTY ONE

HENRY THREW ANOTHER PIECE OF WOOD ON THE FIRE.

The sparks exploded heavenward like it was the happiest moment of their existence. He didn’t think he could ever get tired of seeing that. He might’ve had the wrong idea about this camping action, or at least the fire part, anyway. Then again, he also might be riding the summit of the ultimate adrenaline rush.

He crossed back to the picnic table and stood beside Alice, who stood beside Frank, who sat at the end of the table in the lantern light before an open bottle of rubbing alcohol, a wet rag, and a smoldering cigarette.

Bridget emerged from the shadows defining the van. As she entered fully into the lantern light at the end of the table beside Frank, Henry realized he hadn’t really seen her clearly before this moment, or maybe he just hadn’t bothered to look at her. A bit shorter than Alice, she had dark hair and wasn’t quite as pretty, but she still had a nice face under all the piercings and ink.

“How’s he doing?” he asked her.

“Ed’s sleeping,” she said, “He’s going to hurt for a few days, but he’ll get over it.”

“Why doesn’t someone ask how I’m doing?” Frank said.

“So, Frank,” Henry said, “How’re you doing?”

“Marvelous, thank you very much,” Frank said, laughing, “I still have my teeth and both eyes. Bridget assures me I’ll be as comely as ever once I heal. So, how bad can it be?”

Bridget moved behind Frank. She pulled his head back with one hand and produced a needle and suture with the other. Alice moved around to the table end and beamed a huge flashlight at Frank’s face, which was blotched in dried blood and dirt. The exception was a starkly clean splotch on his brow where a nasty looking and freshly cleaned cut smiled out.

Bridget braced Frank’s head. “Nancy, there’s no way to pretty this up, so I’m just going to say it. This is going to hurt like childbirth.”

Frank closed his eyes. “I regret that I have but one eyebrow to give for my kinsmen. And my oh my, wasn’t that was some fun!”

Bridget slipped the needle in.

Frank screeched.

Henry winced sympathetically. He watched her working the needle through the wound. She seemed to know what she was doing. The gas lantern squatting on the table before Frank was bright enough to blanch the color from their three faces. They looked like an old civil war painting of a field hospital with a doctor sawing someone’s leg off as an entourage huddled close watching, cigars in mouth.

Bridget drew the suture taut, and then stuck the needle through again.

“Ow!” Frank yelled, “That hurts like hell!”

“Funny,” Bridget said, “I can’t feel a thing.”

“Bitch!”

“This would be so much easier if I wasn’t sober. Alice, be a doll and grab a joint from the van.”

“No!” Frank yelled again, “Not until you’re done!”

“Oh, Frank,” Bridget said dramatically, “Don’t be such a pussy.”

Frank winced as the needle made another pass. Bridget pulled the stitch tight and repeated.

“I could do that,” Alice said as she steadied the flashlight, “It doesn’t look much different than sewing a precise seam.”

“Oh, it’s not,” Bridget said, “Tougher fabric, maybe.”

“Messier, too, I think,” Alice said seriously, “I mean, what with the blood and all.”

“Yeah, you’re right. You’re so clever. I hadn’t even thought of that.”

“I could probably make some fancy stitches, too. Make it a little more urban stylish, maybe use some different color threads, yeah?”

“Yeah, sure. Hey, want to give it a try?”

“Hell, yeah!”

“No!” Frank yelled.

“Yes!” Bridget and Alice yelled back.

He tried to pull away but Bridget had a solid hold on his head.

“I’ll hold him tighter,” Bridget said as Alice reached for the needle, “It’s harder to make even stitches when they thrash.”

“I see that. I’ll just give it a good stab and hope for the best.”

“Time out! Time out!” Frank twisted out of Bridget’s grip and slapped the table. “I said time out! Are you deaf? Damn you both!”

“Damn you back, Nancy,” Bridget said, “You want to lose an eye or what? Pulling away like that? I’m armed here, Moron!”

Frank grabbed Henry’s stolen bottle of scotch and poured a generous serving into each of four tiny dixie cups. The needle danced along his face, still attached to the line of suture dangling from the half-stitched gash. It bounced against his cheek as he worked. His eye was bruising quickly. So was his mouth.

Frank hoisted one of the cups up to him. “Henry,” he said, “Thanks to your generous donation of the Vicodin, I think I may survive this. I could kiss you full on the lips for this.”

“Yeah, you do that,” Henry said as he accepted the cup, “Bridget won’t have enough sutures to put you back together.”

Frank passed another cup to Bridget and Alice.

Alice slipped her arm around Henry’s shoulder and raised her cup in salute. “To Henry!”

They all raised their cups in kind.

“Our hero!” Frank said dramatically.

“Hear! Hear!” Bridget added.

They clicked cups and downed the medicine. Then they wadded the empties and pitched them toward the fire in unison. The fire belched in satisfaction. It had become a kind of ritual.

“My dear, Henry,” Frank said as he poured another round into four fresh cups, “Due to your bravado extraordinaire, and manly defense of this clan under enemy fire, I’m officially making you an honorary member of this delightful family.”

Henry accepted the proffered whisky.

Once again, the siblings lifted their cups to him.

“To Henry,” Alice said.

“Our hero,” Frank said.

“Hear! Hear!” Bridget said.

They downed the whisky and pitched the cups. The fire again belched in satisfaction. Everyone laughed.

Henry sat down on the bench across from Frank.

Frank leaned forward and put his hand on Henry’s. “Henry,” he said, patting it, “From this moment forward, I insist you call me Nancy. After tonight, you’re honorary kith and kin. And if per chance you should find yourself alone and tortured with loneliness during the wee hours of the night, why… please know my sleeping bag is always open to you.”

“Well, thank you, Nancy,” Henry said sincerely, “I’m truly honored, though I wouldn’t wait up if I were you. And honestly, I don’t know whether to knock your teeth out or just throw you in the river.”

“Such gratitude. You’re too kind.”

“Man!” Henry said, “I still cannot believe we got out with our skins. I mean, what the hell, Frank?”

Bridget pulled Frank’s head back. “We need to finish this while I can still see straight. Light, please, Alice.”

Alice repositioned the flashlight. Bridget began stitching again. Frank beat the table with his hand.

“What did you do to get those cowboys started?” Henry said.

Frank winced as Bridget pulled the needle through. “They wouldn’t dance with me.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I didn’t realize they were pards, to wax southwestern.”

“Pards?”

“Yeah, pards. You know… bunkies, bronco buddies, dos amigos.”

“Dos amigos?” Henry looked up at Alice. “What am I missing here?”

Alice winked at him.

Frank slapped the table again. “Oh baby, that hurts!”

“Good,” Bridget replied, “Means I’m doing it right.”

Henry looked at the stitching, but quickly pulled away. He couldn’t watch. It was too gruesome. “How do you manage to do that without puking?” he asked her.

“It’s what I do, baby,” she said, “I’m a RN. ED, specifically.”

“Well, that’s certainly convenient,” Henry said.

“We planned it that way,” Alice said, “With Nancy around, we need emergency medical services on call at all times. As you saw tonight, he leans toward trouble prone.”

“It’s all true,” Nancy said, snickering.

“We should’ve planned for a lawyer in the family as well,” Alice said, “That would’ve come in handy on more than one occasion. You don’t have any paralegal training, do you, Henry?”

“Thankfully, no.”

“Too bad.”

Henry rubbed carefully at the back of his head. A tender lump was growing there. “I hope we don’t need one tonight,” he said sincerely, “If they call the sheriff we could all get—”

“Are you kidding?” Frank said, “After you got all Clint Eastwood on their asses? You told them you’d kill them dead! Believe me, none of Dorothy’s friends are going anywhere near a phone for at least a week.”

“Dorothy’s friends?” Henry suddenly realized they were all looking at him. “What?”

“Are you serious?” Frank said, “Good lord, Henry, what bus did you get off?”

Henry looked up at Alice.

Alice reached down and patted his cheek. “Henry, you are adorable.”

“What?”

“Hold the damned light still!” Bridget snapped at Alice, “Christ, I’m going to sew his eye shut here.”

“Yes, Nurse Ratchet.”

“The Cheatin’ Heart’s a gay bar, Hank,” Bridget said as she resumed her work, “I would’ve thought being from California you wouldn’t need a tutorial, but there you go.”

Henry looked at her for a second. Then he said, “A gay bar?”

She glanced at him between stitches. “You’ve heard of them, right?”

“Of course, I have,” he said defensively, “I’ve been to gay clubs before. I’ve had gay friends. But this didn’t look like any I’ve ever seen before.”

“Henry,” Bridget said, laughing, “You are one naïve son of a bitch.”

“Whatever,” Henry said, “Doesn’t really matter. Gay or straight, those were some tough assed cowboys.”

Nancy laughed. “Dude, we’re in the New Mexican Outback. Even the LGBT crowds are packing heat out here. You saw Larry. She nearly separated you from your soul.”

“I suppose so,” Henry said. Then he slipped a hand around Alice’s hips as she stood holding the flashlight, and he threw a smile up at her. “It would’ve gone another direction completely if not for Annie Oakley here. She damn near clocked Larry. And she grabbed the bitch’s arm as she was about to finish me.”

Alice leaned down and kissed his forehead. “But you finished her instead, Superman.”

Bridget laughed, which made Nancy shriek. “Sorry, Nan,” Bridget said, still snickering, “Henry, you didn’t just clock that bitch. You lifted her skinny ass right off the ground. I heard teeth clattering off into the sunset.”

Henry didn’t like the direction of the discussion. He had a sour feeling in his stomach. He grabbed four new cups and began to fill them.

“What is it, dear?” Nancy said, “You look troubled.”

Henry pushed a cup his way. “I’ve never hit a woman before,” he said as he handed the other cups to Alice and Bridget, “I’m not sure I like the way it feels.”

Bridget held her shot out over the table. “Dude, she would’ve rearranged your face without even stopping to ask you how you wanted it. That woman was chiseled in muscle. You did what you had to.”

Alice pushed her cup into Bridget’s. Frank and Henry quickly joined them.

“To Henry.”

“Our hero!”

“Hear! Hear!”

The cups flew.

The fire belched.


THIRTY TWO

HENRY LAY IN THE HAMMOCK, QUIETLY SWAYING BENEATH THE STARS.

He watched the fire slowly giving up its ghost a few yards off toward the van. He wanted to throw more wood on it just so he could see another explosion of sparks. There was something primal, even cathartic about it that he found most fascinating. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any wood left to throw, and there was no way in Heaven or Hell we was going out looking for more. Not out here in the Badlands, and sure as hell not in the middle of the night.

Besides, the medicine they’d been pounding since fleeing the bar was finally doing its job. He wasn’t feeling any significant pain at all, physical or otherwise. Not yet. He had a feeling the morning would be a different story. Morning would probably take his Epic Outing full circle. And it truly was Epic. Every time he thought he’d reached the peak of insanity, something else managed to top it.

He pulled the sleeping bag up around himself. It was getting colder by the minute, which just didn’t seem right to him. They were out in the middle of the desert, after all. And with all those billions of stars beaming down from on high, he expected it to be warmer.

“Move over, Superman. I’m coming in.”

Alice materialized from the darkness, hugging herself like she was on the cusp of freezing.

“Alice, why are you still wearing that dress? Don’t you have anything warmer?

“Just you,” she said as she scampered for the hammock.

He threw the blanket open and she climbed in, nearly dumping them both in the process. Her bare arms and legs were cold as ice.

“Ooh, that’s much better,” she said as she cuddled into him, “You are so warm.”

“Was,” he said.

She slid her hand under his shirt and onto his bare belly.

Henry winced and grabbed her wrist too late. “Bloody hell, Alice! That was just mean.”

“It sure was,” she said, giggling.

“There’s something seriously demented about you. I think you’re a sadist.”

“Yeah, and I’m sorry to report that it runs in the family. If you need to flee, this would be your best opportunity.”

“Nah, I think I’ll hang a bit longer. It’s kind of like watching TV.”

“TV?”

“Yeah. The Addams Family Goes Camping.”

She twisted up to look at him. “Am I Marilyn?”

“Yeah, that’d be the Munsters.”

“The King of Useless Facts. Land sakes, you’re a piece of work, Henry Smith.”

“I know.”

“Brr.” She curled tighter into him. “I wish we had some schnapps.”

“I suspect that’s about the last thing we need.”

“I suppose.”

“I have no urge to wake up tomorrow in a gas station bathroom somewhere in wilds of Arkansas.”

“Not even with me?” she said, peering up at him.

“Especially not with you.”

“But maybe that’d be like a reverse space-time event.”

He looked down at her. “Reverse space-time event? Seriously?”

“Sure, like going backwards through a time warp. Maybe you’ll end up back home before any of this started.”

“That is hands down the most ridiculous thing you’ve said yet.”

She began to say something else, but he clamped his hand over her mouth.

They lay together rocking for a bit. The rope announced each rotation with a soothing creak. The river murmured contentedly below them. The fire popped and hissed as it grudgingly succumbed to the inevitable. Alice had her face in the hollow of his shoulder. He played with a twist of hair coiled along her temple.

As they rocked, Henry studied the stars. There were too many of them. How could the ancient peoples have guided their ships by such a mess? He couldn’t navigate his way off a freeway if there were too many signs.

“Henry?”

“Alice?”

“Can I share the tent with you tonight?”

That one took him by surprise. “Someone better be sharing it with me,” he said, “I’m sure as hell not sleeping out here by myself.”

“Is that a yes?”

He looked down at her resting in the crook of his arm with her face settled against his chest. She was watching the fire. Her green eyes perfectly reflected the dying flames. He looked back up at the stars just as a meteor shot across the expanse. He wondered what the ancients would make of that. Maybe it bode well. Maybe it meant he’d be home by tomorrow night. Maybe it meant something worse.

“Are you trying to find a way to say no, Henry? You can just say so. Seriously.”

He thought about that. He was feeling pretty good. Not drunk, not even numb exactly, more like at peace. His ghosts seemed to have taken the night off.

“Henry?”

“Patience,” he whispered, “I’m not saying no. I’m just wondering what all my choices are.”

“Jerk.”

“Alice, why do you have to ask? I mean, why now? We’ve been going together for a year already, right?”

“Something like that. You have such a good memory.”

“That’s because I keep a detailed journal,” he said.

“Really? I’m impressed. What’s in it?”

“Pretty much everything.”

“Why don’t you read some of it to me?”

“Well, it’s more like a list, I guess.”

“That’s okay,” she said, giggling, “I like lists.”

“All right, let’s see… page one, our first date. Says here you took me skinny dipping.”

“Wow! That’s right. I remember that. I was so forward.”

“Yeah, and I was a little shy.”

“Were? You still are.”

“Page two, our second date. It says you took me to your designer shop and made me some new clothes.”

“Really? How generous of me.”

“That’s an understatement. You had to go all the way back to Denver for your equipment.”

“Actually, it’s just outside Denver. A dreamy little town called Castle Rock.”

“Castle Rock,” he repeated, “Sounds country-western as hell.” He didn’t mean it in a good way.

“What’d we do on our third date?” she said.

“Third page. Says here I returned the favor. I took you for a luxurious, all-expense paid spa visit.”

“Oh, that’s right. I got my hair done. It was absolutely fabulous. What hands that masseuse had. Phew!”

“I believe it was a masseur, actually.”

“Whatever. I still get hot thinking about it.”

“Page four. Hm… looks like I got to know the family. We all went to a gay bar for drinks and dancing.”

“You know, I only barely remember that. Did we have fun?”

“Did we? We danced the night away! We even got to know some of the locals.”

“Sounds lovely.”

“It was. But, sadly, it ended prematurely when I was forced to defend Nancy’s honor.”

“You’re such a man’s man.”

“Man’s man?” He cranked his head down to look at her. “Not sure I like the way you said that, Alice.”

“You’re right. Sorry. What about the fifth date? There was a fifth date, wasn’t there?”

“Sure. Fifth date we camped out.”

“Geez, that was some year, wasn’t it, Henry?”

“Yes, Alice. It’s a year I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”

“So is that a yes, then?”

He looked at her. “Is what a yes?”

“Can I share your tent?”

He faked a deep sigh. “Well, yeah, I guess it’s a yes. But only because I don’t want to get mauled to death alone.”

She traced a finger along his chest. “Henry,” she said, “Check this out. Superman got his uniform slashed during his fight with the Super Villains. How hot is that?”

Henry felt the rip. It ran diagonally across his shirt tearing its way straight through his Superman emblem. He couldn’t remember when in the fight it’d happened. “Damn,” he said, “Hope Ed’s not too attached to this shirt.”

“I got news for you, Superman. Ed’s going to have bigger fish to fry tomorrow than a lousy tee shirt. I think he’s going to have the Queen Mother of all headaches.”

“I suppose.”

“Besides, I’ll have it stitched up before he even knows.”

They laid there for a while, gently swaying and watching the stars. The sight just got better and better. The sky looked like a huge swatch of black velvet sprayed with the most brilliant white glitter he’d ever seen. It was fantastic.

“Henry?”

“Alice?”

“Turns out you did deserve the promotion.”

Henry laughed at that. “It was a team effort,” he said, “Couldn’t have done it without my trusty sidekick.” He gave her a squeeze.

“Kind of like the Justice League?” she said, “Guess that makes me Wonder Woman, yeah?”

“Nah, more like Supergirl.”

“Really?”

“Sure. Blonde hair, fantastic figure, looks great in a short red skirt. Perfect!”

She laughed again. “Who would Nancy be?”

“Nancy would most definitely be Wonder Woman. He already has the breasts for it.”

Alice nestled in tighter. “I was a little worried back there,” she said.

“You and me, both.”

“Especially after you decked Larry. When those other cowboys started working their way toward you? I thought we were going down, baby.”

Henry had to agree.

Alice twisted her face up toward him. “Dude, you were like an inspiration. I mean, Dirty Harry, Gladiator, Rambo. You were the whole gaggle of He-men rolled into one.”

“I’m not sure a team of He-men should be referred to as a gaggle.”

“You didn’t even look scared. You did look epically pissed, though.”

He thought about that. “You’re damned right I was pissed. The bitch slapped you.”

“I rolled with it. She didn’t hit me as hard as it looked.”

“Doesn’t matter. She laid hands on you. That’s all I remember. She hit you and that was that. Light’s out for Henry.”

The fire released an ominous sizzle. The flames dropped like someone had turned down the gas. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Henry?”

“Alice?”

“Game on.”

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me, Alice. I’m tired!”

“No, I’m not kidding,” she said, “And it’s your turn.”

“Wait, you can only activate the game when it’s your turn.”

“Please, Henry?”

Henry watched the stars. Another meteor streaked across the sky. Alice gasped and pointed. He didn’t think he had the energy for the game.

“Come on, Henry,” she pressed, “Just one. There must be something you want to know. Something besides how many miles per gallon Fort Drift gets? Or when was my last period?”

“I thought we were playing the adult version?”

“Don’t you want to know anything about me, Henry? I mean, isn’t your curiosity piqued at all?”

He looked down at her, at her blonde head simmering in his arms beneath the glorious starlight. “There’s a lot I want to know, Alice. Everything, in fact.” He meant it, and he felt a full measure of disappointment for having admitted it.

“Then why aren’t you asking?”

He steadied himself. Then he said, “Wanting something doesn’t mean you should have it.”

Alice didn’t respond to that. She pressed her face tighter into his chest.

“No pouting,” he said firmly.

“I am not pouting. I’m sulking. The difference is distinct and inarguable.”

Henry sighed. He wanted nothing to do with this, not right now. The night was too perfect to ruin by opening the doors to his ghosts. And that’s exactly where this tack was inevitably going to take them, straight down to the door safely barricading his ghosts away from the world.

“Come on, Henry,” she whispered up to him, “Please. One question.”

Henry stared up at the stars and tried to steady himself. This was an intersection from which there was no safe direction. If he agreed, the night would doubtlessly end in drama. If he denied her, he risked insulting her, or at least leaving her feeling like she’d been nothing more than a parking spot for the day. He was destined to lose regardless of which way he turned, and so he did the only thing he could: He hit the gas.

“All right,” he said, “You want something a little more high octane? How about this? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

“How do you know I don’t?”

“You can’t answer the question with a question.”

“Prick.”

“Bitch.”

Then Alice went strangely silent. She didn’t speak for a bit. In fact, she didn’t speak for several minutes. Henry waited until the risk that she’d fallen asleep became a realistic concern.

He gently nudged her. “Alice?”

“I’m thinking,” she said sharply.

He felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe he had her on the run this time. “Think quick,” he said, “It’ll be dawn soon.”

He felt her sigh. She had her hand pressed against his chest. Her fingers slipped through the tear on his emblem. She delicately traced his chest with her fingers.

“Well?” he pressed.

“I’ve just never been one for that sort of thing,” she said at last.

“Right. And just what the hell does that mean?”

“I mean, it’s never been my strong suit. I guess.”

“Is that supposed to be an answer? What hasn’t been your strong suit? Dating?”

She didn’t respond. She didn’t even move.

Then the truth hit him like a slap. “Ah! Love! Love hasn’t been your strong suit. Is that it?”

Again, she didn’t respond.

“Alice?” he asked tentatively.

He felt something hot against his chest, and he realized she was shaking ever so slightly.

“Alice?” He lifted his head and looked down at her. He stroked her cheek and found moisture. “Alice, are you crying?”

“No.”

“You’re lying. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

He suddenly felt like a heel. This is what comes of being in places you have no right to be. You wander into a swamp, you deserve to get bit by a snake. This was exactly why he should have refused the damned game from the start. This is the only place it could ever have led to, to her pain.

“Never mind,” he said, “I withdraw it. Seriously. It was a stupid question.”

And then he realized she was laughing. At first, he couldn’t make sense of it. Then he understood. He’d been duped. “What the hell, Alice?”

“You’re such a pushover, Superman.” She slapped him on the belly, still laughing.

“And you’re a real bitch.” He totally meant it.

She pushed herself up on an elbow and kissed him on the cheek. “Oh, Henry! You’re so easy.”

“Jesus, Alice. You’re a real piece of work. Do you concede or not? Because you really should after that cheap little play.”

“Not, of course,” she said, “The truth is I’ve—”

“Forget it! You’ve answered the question.”

She pulled back just a bit. “No, I haven’t. I was just funning with you.”

“No, Alice. Seriously? I think you just totally answered the question. Really. I understand why you don’t have a boyfriend now. I mean I really, really understand. Should’ve been obvious from the start.”

“Don’t be a jerk.”

“Honestly. Don’t say another word. It’s all clear now.”

“Yeah? Well, I’m telling you whether you like it or not.”

“Whatever. Talk yourself blue. I’m not going to listen anyway.”

She looked up at him like he’d just slapped her.

This time he laughed. Then he pulled her into a hug. “Man, you’re a pushover,” he said.

As she realized the ploy, grabbed a wad of his shirt. “Henry,” she whispered up at him, “You are so going to pay for that.”

“Going to? That statement should be set in past tense, Alice.”

“All right,” she said after a bit, “Here’s the truth. I’ve had boyfriends. And I’ve had special friends. I’ve had friends with benefits. I’ve done the whole ‘shuffle-of-the-dating-dead’ scene. I’ve gone to the clubs. I’ve gone on blind dates. I’ve gone on pity dates. I’ve gone steady. I was even engaged once. Briefly. Like, as in one week briefly. But in thirty-two years, I’ve never found anyone I thought interesting enough or honest enough or deep enough to bother with. Not for the long run. The men in this country are ninety-eight per cent assholes. Remember I told you I love gay men?”

“I could forget that?”

“Well, it wasn’t a lie. Gay men are straighter than straight men. They flatter you and criticize you because they mean it. It’s honest. When they have a problem with you, they bring it on. When they adore you, they shower you with love. Show me that kind of honesty in a straight man. Straight men are an unending series of games about manhood, selfishness, and saving face.”

“Wow! Color me enlightened.”

“You should be. You all should be.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, “And just for the record? I’m probably a little gay myself. Only in the good way, of course. In case you wanted to know.”

She grabbed him and kissed him on the cheek again. “I know, Superman. That’s why I’m cuddling with you now. I know how perfectly safe it is to be in bed with you.”

He snorted at that. “Good one, Alice.”

She looked up at him again. “Oh, and Henry? The age thing was a freebie.” Then she laid her head back on his shoulder.

“You’re a real piece of work.”

“So you’ve said. Well, did I answer the question to your satisfaction?”

He sighed and nodded and pulled her closer. “More than I even wanted to know.”

“Excellent,” she practically hissed, “And now it’s my turn.” She made the bwah-ha-ha laugh. It was actually pretty convincing.

“Great,” Henry said. It absolutely wasn’t.

“Are you ready?”

“Whatever.”

“I’m serious,” she said exactly as if she meant it, “After that, I’m totally playing hardball now.”

“I’m ready as I’ll ever be. And, just so you know? Being Attila the Hun is a step up from hardball. Just so it’s on the record, I mean.”

“Are you ready, Henry?” she said far too carefully, “If you have any protective gear you need to don before the games begin, this would be your chance.”

Henry felt a chill that had nothing to do with the night temperature. “Sure,” he lied, “Fire away.”

She scooted herself up and propped her chin on his chest. She looked him hard in the eyes. Then she said softly, “What was her name?”


THIRTY THREE

HENRY WAS TOO HOT.

The sleeping bag was smothering him. The air was too thick.

He couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen that coming. It’d landed as solidly and as unexpectedly as Larry’s bat. He felt cornered, again. Exposed, again.

With Alice, it was a constant game of flight or fight, and he just couldn’t seem to keep up. One minute, he was ready to flee into the night, to run away as fast as his feet and an eager thumb could carry him, the next minute he felt as comfortable with her as a couple celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary. And in the breadth of a happy sigh, it turned straight back around again.

Alice lay looking up at him with her arms crossed on his chest and her chin propped on her arms. The hammock creaked quietly, though its swaying suddenly felt awkward and contrived.

“Did you hear my question?” she said.

He didn’t respond. His eyes were on the stars, his stomach on the ground. He had to fight the urge to heave her sorry ass out of the hammock. That was too close to home, way too fucking close. What the hell business was that of hers anyway?

“Henry, are you sleeping?”

He barely heard her. His pulse banged pans in his ears.

“Henry?”

“What kind of question is that?” he demanded. He couldn’t remember the decision to ask it, and that revelation just pissed him further.

She bristled a bit. “It’s just a question.”

“You don’t even know there was a she.”

“You didn’t know I didn’t have a boyfriend.”

“It’s not the same.”

“Nonsense.” She pulled back just a hair, just noticeably.

“It’s not the same, Alice!” He said it harder than he meant to.

“Land sakes, Henry.”

“Land sakes what, Alice?”

“I think you’re getting a bit more worked up than the question merit. It’s just a question.”

He resisted the urge to respond.

“What the hell, Henry? Bad breakup or what? Man!”

He locked his eyes on the stars. It was one of those moments where he wanted to be any place else on the planet. One of those moments that feel so sickeningly self-conscious, it’s physical. If he could’ve willed himself out of that sleeping bag without loss of dignity, he’d be gone.

“Henry, what is this?”

“Nothing.” He couldn’t hide.

“Nothing? Then why are you getting all sour on me?”

“Piss off, Alice.”

This time she bristled more than a little. “Piss? Off? You did not just say that to me. Piss off?”

Henry watched himself bolt up from the hammock. He watched himself storm to the edge of the drop overlooking the river. His hands shook. He couldn’t draw a decent breath. He couldn’t breathe!

The hammock swayed manically behind him with her in it, the ropes screaming at each pass. He threw his hands to his ears. Don’t go there. Don’t go there. Don’t you dare go there! He closed his eyes and willed the cage closed. He couldn’t let it out, not tonight! He wouldn’t! He would not let it out!

The hammock ropes shrieked to a sinister rhythm. Each creak felt like nail in his stomach. He needed it to stop. He needed to escape into the night, to keep running and never look back. But he couldn’t run. Not now. He didn’t know the way out. It was the middle of the night in the middle of the desert. He was trapped between his terrors and the terrors. For once in his life, there was no place to run.

He gradually became aware of the river sneaking past below him. It made an earthy sound, a whispering, soothing sound. White noise, they called it, isn’t that right? He focused on it. He sent every bit of himself into it. He wanted to become the sound. He wanted to crawl into that cool mud beneath the river and sleep the hard sleep. God knew he deserved it.

“Henry?”

Her voice was small and sadly tentative, and yet it somehow still startled him.

He turned his head just slightly toward it.

“I didn’t mean to make you mad,” she said.

The words felt like a kick in the but. His eyes burned, but he fought it back. It wasn’t even her fault. Not if he were honest. It was himself he was pissed at, not her. It wasn’t her fault he was a murderer.

“I’m really sorry, Henry.”

“I’m not… it’s all right. Just… just forget it. Go to bed.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I guess I took it too far. I made assumptions I didn’t have a right to make. I never wanted to make you uncomfortable.”

His heart was slowing. It was cold. A light breeze gnawed through him. He felt himself trembling.

“I mean it, Henry. I didn’t mean to take you places you didn’t want to go. I was just curious. I’m stupid that way. Come back to the hammock.”

Henry wanted to respond, but pride was driving now, and that pride was a loyal slave to his anger.

“You don’t even have to concede,” Alice said behind him, “We’ll just scrub the game. It’s all right with me. Really. I’d never want to make you uneasy. I like you too much for that. It was just a stupid game. It’s not fun anymore.”

And just like that, she gave his discomfort legitimacy that he never asked for. Why was she treating him so kindly? He didn’t deserve it. He wanted her to go away. He honestly and sincerely wanted her to leave him alone, at least for now. He was angry and ashamed, and he had no patience for being pampered.

“Henry, you’re cold. I can see you shaking. Come on, come back into the hammock with me.”

“I’m fine.” He so wasn’t.

“Come back to me, Henry.”

“Go to bed, Alice.”

“Henry…”

“Go to bed.”


THIRTY FOUR

HENRY WAITED IN THE WINGS.

It was too dark. The lights out on the stage looked like liquid metal. He thought that must be what light reflecting from God’s eyes would look like… a steely flame that draws you to it but won’t ever let you in. Maybe that was the meaning of life, maybe that’s all they were in the end, just moths beating themselves to death against God’s baby blues.

Dean walked up to him and held out his hand. Henry looked at him a moment, then just handed the microphone over without a fight. He didn’t know why he did it, he just did it. Maybe because it was the older Dean this time, the one at the end of his career. Maybe it was because he didn’t deserve to keep it anyway. Maybe he just didn’t care anymore.

“Thanks, pally,” Dean said, toasting him with his drink. His hair glistened with an unnatural blue patina. “See you on the other side of hope, right son?”

“What?”

Dean threw him a wink.

“Wait!” Henry said as Dean walked away from him, “What does that mean?”

Dean eased out onto the stage. He shook the microphone over his shoulder in salute. Then the spotlight seized him. The band started up with the intro. The audience went wild.

Zoe materialized beside Henry. Her hair was longer than he’d ever seen it. It flowed unfettered over her shoulders and down her breasts. It was nearly at her knees. It was the same steely blue as Dean’s.

Somewhere in the distance, Dean crooned into the microphone. It was Henry’s song. Again. The audience roared. Henry felt like crying.

“I’m supposed to sing it for you,” he said to Zoe.

“You?” she said, laughing, “You’re not even wearing any pants.”

He wasn’t, though he couldn’t say why. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. It was his song to sing to her, not Dean’s, and surely not any of the others’.

“Oh, don’t go pulling the others into this, Henry,” Zoe said sharply, “Be a good boy. Don’t ruin the song for me again.”

“It’s my song, Zoe.”

“I know,” Zoe said, smiling at him, “But Dean sings it so much better, don’t you think? They all did, really. Every one of them.”

How did she know that? She’d never even heard him sing it. “Not properly anyway,” he said to her, “Not with the music.”

“Well, you know what they say, Henry. Some men are singers, and others can’t even find their pants.”

He didn’t understand that. He looked at her. Her hair was bobbed nearly to her ears. She had a black ribbon in it. She was only wearing one shoe. Her exposed toenails were painted red.

It’s not right. The others should never have sung to her. “No one should’ve sung it to you, but me.” It was his song.

“Oh, what do you know?” she said, laughing.

“You should’ve said no, Zoe,” he said. She should’ve just said no. She was married, for Christ’s sake! It was rude to let them sing to her.

“Is it rude to eat when you’re hungry?” she asked him, “Is it rude to diet when you’re fat?”

Was that a riddle?

“I don’t have time for riddles, Henry. It’s the meaning of life. You’d know that if you ever could’ve sung to me.”

Her hair stabbed out from her head in sharp clusters like railroad spikes. “How nineteen-ninety-nine of me,” she said to him, smiling, “Don’t ya think?”

“What?” he said.

“I’m trying to enjoy Dean’s singing, Henry. You’re just getting in the way. You were always getting in the way.”

“You’re my wife.”

“I was the vagina you parked in. I should sue you!”

“Sue me?”

“I should call my lawyer and take everything you have.”

“What?”

“You ruined me, Henry!”

Her image abruptly distorted. Her face swelled, growing purple and bloated. Her eyes were larger than they should’ve been, bulging sickeningly from her face. A black and swollen tongue curled out of her mouth like an obscene snake.

Henry backed away. “Zoe,” he said, “I’m… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Want to kiss and make up, Henry?” The words were slurred by that bulging tongue.

She moved slowly toward him. He heard the heel of her one shoe counting off her steps. Clack. Silence. Clack. Silence. A trail of urine glistened behind her.

“You ruined me, Henry.”

Henry backed away. Wake up, he told himself. This is just a damned dream, so wake up. Wake up and walk away.

“It’s all your fault, Henry,” she slurred at him.

He was suddenly in the Cheatin’ Heart again. They were on the dance floor. The jukebox was wailing something about murdering your wife.

Zoe still moved toward him, still reached for him. Eyes the size of oranges and filled with blood locked on his. “Dance with me, Henry,” she whispered around that hideous tongue, “You owe me that much. Just one dance.”

“No,” Henry said, shaking his head, “Please, Zoe. I’m sorry. Please.”

Larry materialized behind her. Her crewcut was black now. “Oh, just kiss her already, you pussy!” she said as she slapped that bat against her hand.

“No,” Henry said, still backing away, “I won’t do it. You leave me alone now. Just go away.”

Zoe limped toward him with Larry right behind her beating that bat manically against her calloused palm. “Just kiss her, you little prick!”

Henry’s back found the wall. There was no more room to retreat. They had him cornered!

And then Alice! She stood directly before him looking up at him with those terrible, wonderful green eyes. She put her hand against his cheek and whispered, “No, Superman. Not Zoe. She’s not allowed here.”

What was Alice doing here? Why was Alice in his dream?

“I’m here to help you bury your dead, Henry.”

Zoe screeched behind her. “It’s all your fault, Henry! You can’t even sing one fucking song! Isn’t that right? You’re not man enough to sing one simple little song!”

“She has to be sung to, Hank,” Larry said, “A pretty woman needs a song.”

Alice gripped Henry’s face with both hands and urged him down toward her. He felt the warmth of her breath on his mouth. “Make her go away, Henry,” she whispered to him.

He didn’t know how.

“You do know how. She’s just a ghost, and she’s not permitted here. This is my world, and I won’t allow her in.” Alice rose up on her toes and kissed him gently on the lips.

“You ruined me, Henry,” Zoe screamed behind her, “You killed me! You made me a monster!”

“You’re a pussy, Hank!” Larry hollered, “You’re a tone-deaf prick!”

Alice still held his face, still smiled that fantastic smile at him. “Forget her, Henry,” she whispered, “She’s dead, and she stinks. It’s time to bury her.”

“I can’t,” whispered, “I don’t know how.” He absolutely didn’t know how.

“Look at me, Henry,” Alice said, “I’m right here right now. Focus on me. You don’t have to be afraid anymore. I’m here with you.”

“Alice?” He wasn’t sure what was happening.

“I’m here with you, Henry. I won’t leave you.”

“Alice?”

The room grew darker.

“I’m here, Henry.”

“Alice?”

The jukebox stopped.

He couldn’t see her anymore.

“Alice?”

“I’m right here, Henry.”

The floor shifted beneath him.

“Henry.”

The floor disappeared. He was falling!

“Henry!”


THIRTY FIVE

“HENRY!”

His name dragged him up from the depths. He opened his eyes.

“Henry?”

Someone was looking down at him from the shadows, someone whose shape was defined only by the absence of stars.

“Henry?”

It was Alice. She seemed frightened. Her hand was locked on his face. “Alice?” he whispered.

“You were having a nightmare. I could hear you from the tent.”

Henry looked around and tried to get his bearings. It was still dark. It was still cold, but it felt good. He was still in the hammock, still wrapped in the sleeping bag.

“What time is it?” he said.

“Nearly dawn.”

“I was dreaming.” His voice felt hoarse.

“I know,” she whispered, “You were talking. You said a name.”

“What?”

“You called it in your sleep.”

“The dream,” he whispered.

“A recurring dream.”

It wasn’t a question. And he thanks the stars for it, because he wouldn’t know how to answer it if it was.

“It’s late, Henry.”

“No, really?” he said. It came out more sarcastically than he intended.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said, calmly, “I meant the time. It’s cold out here. Please come into the tent.”

The fire’s fading embers still simmered from deep in her eyes. He felt her brush the hair back from his face. Her touch felt like hope.

“You called for Zoe,” she said.

“Zoe?” He pushed himself higher in the hammock. “I said that? I said… I said Zoe?” The name came out harder than he’d expected, like pushing a cement block through sand.

“Yes,” Alice whispered, “Zoe.”

She was too close to him. She had her arm around him. Her fingers were through the rip in his Superman emblem. She was once again tracing some arcane image against his chest.

“I said that?” he said, “You’re sure?” He remembered Alice, remembered calling for Alice. How could he have said Zoe?

“Yes, Henry. You said Zoe. It’s a nice name.”

He shrugged. He didn’t have the energy for this, and he didn’t have the energy to fight it. He felt perfectly defeated.

Alice took his hand. “Come on, Henry. Come to bed.”

He looked down into the darkness where the river used to be. He heard it whispering below him.

She squeezed his hand and pulled just enough to urge him. “Come to bed, dear. It’s too cold out here. You’ll get sick.”

He resisted. He didn’t want to be comforted. He didn’t deserve to be. He didn’t want to soil her with his dysfunction. She was perfect, and he didn’t want to ruin her. “I’m fine,” he whispered, “I’m going to—”

She pulled his face up by the chin. Her eyes glowed red now, like a spark burned deep inside them. “It wasn’t a request,” she said firmly, “You’re coming to bed.”


THIRTY SIX

HENRY FOLLOWED ALICE THROUGH THE TENT FLAP.

The flames of his anger had mellowed to a fading burn, like the embers dying in the fire pit outside. The dream left him feeling hopeless. He was too tired to care about any danger anymore.

Alice helped him slip off his jeans. She pulled his shirt up over his head. “I’ll fix this in the morning,” she said as she folded it.

She pulled back the sleeping bag and gestured him in. It was on an air mattress, and it felt like the sweetest bed he’d ever fallen into. He lay on his back. He watched her dark silhouette brushing against the green moonlit glow of the tent. He watched her dark form slip off her shirt, and then her shoes and pants. He watched her slide into the bed. Her skin was cold to the touch; he instinctively pulled her closer. Her legs and arms wove into him too easily, too naturally. She parked her face in the hollow of his shoulder.

He drew a deep breath. A slice of the moon simmered through the screened vent at the pitch of the ceiling above them. It was almost too bright to look at directly, but he didn’t pull away. The pain felt good. The light burned his vision away so that he felt like he was staring into a dark tube lit only by that that distant fire.

“What did she look like?”

Her words startled him. Though she’d whispered them almost too gently, they still took him by surprise. He locked harder onto that silvery fire burning far, far above him.

“Why would you ask that?” he whispered.

He felt her shrug. “Curious,” she whispered, “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want.”

He drew a sigh. “No,” he whispered back, “It’s all right. It’s an odd question, that’s all.”

Alice didn’t respond.

“Are you worried she looked like you? Is that why you’re asking?”

“No, Henry.”

“Maybe you think I’m attracted to you because you remind me of her?”

“It never occurred to me.”

He sensed the anger in her voice and stopped. Besides, he’d effectively just told her he was attracted to her, hadn’t he? He looked back up at the slice of moon. It’d already moved a bit.

“Nothing about you reminds me of her,” he said. His tone came off a little cruel. He hadn’t meant it to. “I mean, you’re not… you know…”

“It’s okay, Henry. I understand.”

“I mean to say you’re not a stand-in or anything.” He had to say it. “Not even close.”

“We’re just friends, Henry. I’m not threatened.”

The words stung a little. We’re just friends. Why would he react that way?

“She was taller than you,” he said after a moment, “Little heavier, I guess. She had dark hair, long. Wide mouth. She had a good smile.”

“I bet she was pretty, yeah?”

“I don’t know, really. She was more complicated than that.”

“Was she your wife?”

That caught him off guard. His natural state of panic kicked up again. He had this odd sensation of drifting, like their bed was a raft slowly moving along with the current of the river. He only had the moon to anchor onto, and the moon was quickly moving on its merry way. Pretty soon he’d have nothing.

Alice was absently stroking the skin over his sternum with her fingers, drawing odd shapes there, like talismans or archaic runes. It had a strangely sedating effect on him. He wanted to resist it, but he was outgunned.

He thought about her question. Were they married? What difference did it make now? “Why do you ask?” he whispered.

Her fingers continued their gentle drawing for a moment. And then they stopped. Her face nudged him almost imperceptibly. “Because,” she whispered, “I think you need me to ask.”

Henry didn’t know what to say to that. He watched the shrinking sliver of the moon sneaking past the vent. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Never mind, dear,” she whispered gently, “Your heart’s pounding too hard. I can hear it through your chest.” She stroked her open hand across his breast and ribs. “We should go to sleep now.”

He seriously didn’t think that was going to happen. He wished dawn would get here so he could get up, get out, maybe get some medicine.

“Goodnight, Henry.”

“We were married,” he said. He didn’t know why he said it. He just said it. It felt too abrupt.

He could practically hear the wheels spinning in her head. He’d just opened the door for her, hadn’t he? No game, no pretension, just open up the bloody door. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d grabbed a pen and pad.

“How long?” she said.

That one burned a bit. “Long enough.”

“How long have you been apart?”

That one burned worse. That one left a mark.

He shifted a bit. He felt suddenly confused. He wondered what to do. As he considered his limited options, the last of the moon eased out of sight beyond the vent. That was it. It’d abandoned him here. He was on his own.

He felt her face shift up toward him. She was waiting, but she didn’t press. He had to give her a point for that. Why was he drawing this out? She deserved the truth, no matter how grim. So just give it to her and be done with the whole miserable thing. Send her on her horrified way.

“Are you all right?” she said gently.

“Four years.”

Even in the darkness he felt her laser eyes burning into him, felt the heat of her targeting system. Her fingers continued drawing on his chest. It was obviously a distraction.

She didn’t say anything for a time. He wondered if she was disappointed. Maybe the question was some kind of emotional yardstick. Maybe she was trying to measure his emotional availability. Maybe she thought that at four years, he should be farther from his pain.

“Did you have children?”

He was disappointed at how much by surprise that took him. Definitely should’ve seen that one coming. “No,” he said, “Tried hard enough, but it always ended up at the bottom of the toilet.”

She seemed to falter a bit at that. “You don’t have to be crude, Henry. If you don’t want to talk, just say so.”

He felt the sharp bite of guilt. He felt like a brute, and he hated himself for it. He might just as well have slapped her. It was the story of his life, and he knew it as well as his name. He’d made a career of punishing everyone around him for his mistakes.

“Good night,” she whispered.

She nestled into him tighter. She meant it this time. She was leaving him.

So that was it, then, was it? Just let her go to sleep with that last image of him in her mind? Let her sleep on what a dick he was? Let it go, problem solved? Thanks for shopping with us. Next!

He pushed the hair back from his forehead and rubbed his eyes. His black eye felt tenderer tonight. He briefly wondered if he’d gotten hit there again, though he didn’t remember it.

He sighed and dropped his forearm across his brow. Why the hell was he punishing her? Because his anger was his jailer, that’s why. Because his anger kept the cellblock locked. Because he didn’t have any free will anymore, and he was miserable, and he just wanted to be left alone because of it.

Oh, stop lying to yourself for once, he told himself. If that were honestly true, why are you still here? Why did you stay with her? Why did you play the damned game? Because it was exactly as she said. Because you need her to ask. So, be a man for once in your misspent life. Answer the goddamned questions or get the hell out of the tent.

“That was rude,” he whispered suddenly.

He felt her stir. He thought she might have actually been falling asleep. Her face slipped up toward him. “Hm?” she whispered.

He stroked her cheek with his fingers. “I’m sorry, Alice.” He meant it. “I’m a Class-A dick sometimes.” He was.

“It’s all right. Don’t apologize. I know this isn’t easy.”

“There’s nothing all right about it,” he said carefully, “Sometimes I’m a bully. I get angry over stupid things. Mostly when I’m… I don’t know…”

“Scared?”

Direct hit. “Probably.”

“You’re safe with me, Henry. You can tell me anything you want or don’t tell me anything you don’t want. It’s all good between us.”

That was what worried him the most. It was all good right now. She hadn’t been down to the dungeon yet.

They lay together in silence for a few moments. The river hushed along in the darkness outside. It sounded duller and more depressed from inside the tent

“Henry?”

This time he knew exactly what was coming. He steadied himself. He pushed his anger out of the way and prepared to receive. “Ask it, Alice.”

“Where is she now?”

“She’s dead.”

Her fingers stalled.

He felt another bite of guilt. He’d said it too quickly, she wouldn’t miss that. He looked up at the deserted vent. “Go ahead,” he said, “Doesn’t matter now, the door’s open. Let’s just finish it.”

Her fingers began tracing the runes again. “How… how did…?”

It was the first time he’d seen her stall, the first time he’d sensed any evidence of hesitation or self-doubt in her, and he was even more impressed with her because of it. Her heart was a size too big.

“You have to ask, Alice,” he whispered, “I can’t answer it if you don’t ask.”

“How did she die?”

It surprised him how unprepared he actually was for the question. Never mind he’d set it in motion himself. Never mind he’d practically said the words for her. That question trumped his anger. That question unlocked the cell door. That question released the horrors.

 “How did she die?” she asked again.

He knew she’d had no choice but to ask again. They were both prisoners now. He couldn’t push back against the memories any more than she could stop asking to see them.

“How did she die?”

He tried to say it, but he couldn’t draw a breath. He wanted to say it, wanted to be rid of it, but his throat wouldn’t comply.

“How did Zoe die?”

“I killed her.” The words landed before he even realized he’d pushed them out.

Her fingers stopped.

He felt her cheek flush hot against his chest.

And in that instant, he knew exactly what to expect. Everything was going to be all right now. Everything was going to be just fine. His heart slowed just a bit, just enough to ease the pain. He could breathe again. This is how it ends, and thank God for it. This is how he regains control. This is how Henry once again narrowly escapes his life.

He only had to hold on a bit longer. Once she processed the words, she’d suspect the monster. She’d try to react politely. She’d give some lame but not too lame reason to excuse herself. She’d walk to the van a bit too quickly, and the sound of the van doors locking from the inside would mark the end of it.

His relief was almost unbearable. A few moments more and he’d be free. He began plotting the route home. Two miles out to one-eighty, then north to interstate—

But then he felt her draw a breath, and with that, her fingers started up again.

He couldn’t believe it. She was tracing those runes on his chest again, tracing them like she was marking him against the devil. He felt her face slowly slipping up toward his. He felt her draw another determined breath.

“How?” she whispered.

Time stopped.

This wasn’t supposed to happen! This was impossible. This was like a movie where the bad guy’s down and everyone’s safe at last. Only then, she twitches. And then her hand moves. And then she’s coming for him again. There was no running now. This was going to end very, very badly.

“How, Henry?” Her voice was more insistent now.

“What?”

“I know you didn’t kill her. How did Zoe die?”

The cell door flew open. The memories charged out. The images rushed over him like lepers on Christ. There were too many. He couldn’t get away from them, couldn’t resist them. They were pulling him down. His pain boiled up, hot and insistent.

He saw Zoe’s bare legs. He remembered she was only wearing one shoe. He remembered her red toenails and how curious they looked against that purple skin. He remembered the peculiar angle of her neck. He remembered her tongue and her empty eyes! Why did he have to remember that? Why did he ever have to see that?

“Henry?”

“She hanged herself.”

Alice let slip a little cry. “Oh, Henry,” she whispered to him, “I’m so sorry.”

Henry choked. He closed his eyes. The words played over in his mind like guilty whispers heard from the wrong side of a closed door: She hanged herself.

Alice climbed higher in their bed. He felt her forehead press into his cheek. She took hold of him like she was never going to let him go.

He wanted to tell her it was all right, that it was just proof she should run away, that she shouldn’t hold on too tightly to him. But he didn’t.

“Keep going, Henry,” she whispered. He felt her breath on his face. “You’re safe with me. Tell me all of it.”

“It was after the … after the affair.” The dark heat boiled up through his chest. His eyes burned. It was only Alice’s hold on him that kept him from being sucked up through the vent and out into the vacuous atmosphere.

“Keep going,” she whispered to him. She brushed the hair back from his face and kissed his forehead.

“She hanged herself in the garage,” he whispered, “I remember… I remember curious things about it. I remember the urine stain on the cement. I remember the line it’d left to the drain. Zoe would’ve been mortified by that, to be found like that. To have soiled herself after she… after she...”

His breath locked in his chest.

Alice pulled him in tighter. She was quietly, almost politely weeping. “Keep going,” she whispered, “Tell me everything, Henry.”

“She used… she used a little table to stand on. It had grapes painted on the top with the vines trailing down the legs. She’d bought it at an art festival years before, but never found a place for it. Every now and then she’d see it out there in the garage and tell me she had to make room for it inside, that it was such a cute little table, but she never did. It just sat out in that garage gathering dust. I used to bitch at her about it, about wasting our money on junk, and why couldn’t she just find a place to put the damned thing?

“But in the end… in the end she did find a place for it, didn’t she? The joke was on me. She found a place for it right underneath her. She used it to stand on. She used it to–”

He suddenly couldn’t speak. The pressure behind his eyes was hot and insistent. He felt himself collapsing back into the darkness.

“Henry,” Alice whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

“I killed her, Alice.” The words felt raw and unprocessed like vomiting undigested food. “I killed her.”

“No, Henry. She killed herself. You can’t stop someone when they’re determined to do that.”

“No, I killed her! She’d still be here if not for me and my childish intolerance!”

“No, Henry.”

“Because of the affair,” he whispered, “It was just a mistake, for God’s sake! It was just one miserable mistake in a lifetime of them.”

“You can’t keep punishing yourself, Henry.”

“Punish myself?” He almost laughed at that. “She hanged herself because I wouldn’t stop punishing her.”

Alice stalled as she read the words. “Zoe had the affair.” It wasn’t a question, it was a revelation.

“I wouldn’t let her forget,” he whispered, “I wanted her to suffer. I beat her down with it! I made her suffer because I was suffering. I was suffering, but I was too vindictive to leave. I’d rather suffer with her than see her go free. I as good as killed her myself!”

“Oh, Henry.”

The vent was a watery blur above him. His throat was on fire. “I couldn’t forgive her,” he said, “Hell, I never even tried. I just wanted to punish her and humiliate her, over and over and over! I wouldn’t let her go and I wouldn’t let her forget. I as good as tied that rope around her neck and hoisted her up myself.”

“No, you didn’t, Henry.”

“She begged me to forgive her. I can’t even tell you how she begged me! But I didn’t want to forgive her. I just wanted her to suffer as deeply and miserably as I had. But, you know… no matter how much I shamed her, no matter how hard or deeply I humiliated her, it was never enough to make the pain go away. I was in a rage. My anger was a monster that’d grown too big to leash. It controlled me. It still controls me.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It still controls me, Alice. It’ll always control me! I’m a fucking monster! I’m the one they should have buried.”

Alice pressed her face into his neck. The heat of her tears soaked his chest.

His eyes were burning, his throat was raw, but no tears were coming. He was not going to cry. He just watched the stars flittering through the vent above him and tried to keep breathing.

Then Alice was there with her wet face pressed into his. She held his head and kissed his face, and muttered calmingly to him. He felt his arms slide around her as if they had made the decision on their own. She rolled onto him and fell into him. She kissed him so deeply he couldn’t pull away. She consumed him now. She owned him, if only for the moment. Their limbs tied them together through the height of her strength and the depth of his fears, and together they rolled off the edge of the world.


THIRTY SIX

HENRY OPENED HIS EYES.

He was in a glowing green room. For a few beats, he couldn’t make sense of it. A few daggers of sunlight stabbed him from the ceiling.

The vents.

He was in the tent.

He stretched out through the maze of sleeping bags and arched his back. He felt better than he had in weeks, probably months, maybe even years. The fresh air felt like a transfusion. Maybe this sleeping outside action wasn’t so bad after all. He wondered if he could ever do it alone.

Then the dream flamed through his mind.

Zoe.

He remembered Alice saving him. She’d come to him and taken him back to the tent with her. He remembered telling her. He’d open the vaults to her. He remembered her crying for him. He remembered holding her. He remembered kissing her. He remembered…

The rest of the memories followed like a barrage of punches.

He bolted upright and grabbed his face. “Oh, my God,” he whispered into his hands, “What did you do? What the hell did you do?”

His stomach was full of burning coals. Jesus, he wasn’t even drunk last night! He lifted the edge of his sleeping bag to find himself just as naked as he expected to be. He collapsed back into the bedding and moaned.

“Oh, my God! What in the bloody hell did you do?”

The one thing he absolutely hadn’t wanted to do, that’s what. The one thing he’d sworn himself to avoid. He’d promised not to drag her into his insanity, not to subject her to his fallout, and yet here he was. He was nothing but a self-serving asshole!

He thought back to Alice’s uncomfortably accurate description of his weekends: And when you stagger into work Monday morning, the consequences of all the hiding you did on the weekend are just smoking wreckage.

Smoking wreckage.

He drew a deep, stuttering breath and tried not to cry. Alice was the last stand. Alice was a gift of hope that he might not be irreparably screwed up after all. She was sacred territory. She was the first person he’d ever wanted to protect from himself.

And now it was all out of his hands. Now he had to go out there and set fire to her world. He felt abandoned and alone. Even his anger was strangely missing in action. It felt like the last slim thread to his humanity had been snipped, like he was in perfect free-fall.

He threw his hands to his eyes. He wanted to sink into the earth and sleep the sleep of the dead. He wanted to be nothing. He wanted every living thing to forget him. He wanted to be swallowed into whatever hell awaited him on the other side of that dark door and be done with it. This life was finished. He was finished. He couldn’t bear to bring any more sorrow down on anyone else.

The air in the tent was too thick, too stale and unforgiving. It was the scene of his latest abuse, and he couldn’t bear to linger in it. He had to get this over with. He threw back the sleeping bag, and pulled on his jeans. His shirt was gone, so he pulled open the tent flap and marched out into the wreckage of the day without it.

The sun was higher than it should’ve been. It had to be past noon. The picnic table was covered with packed boxes of food and gear. The cooler was resting at the end of the bench. The little spigot was open, but it wasn’t dripping any water. There was no telling how long they’d been gone.

He walked over to the picnic table. The awning on the van was gone. So was the clothesline. It looked like they’d gotten the weather forecast, like they’d seen the coming storm and were preparing to ride out ahead of it.

The door to Fort Drift was open, but no one was inside. He suspected the crew might be taking a last consecrating bath before hitting the trail. He wondered if he should go say goodbye or just go. The latter would surely be easier.

Then he noticed the bottle of water sitting beside the cooler. It had a little sticky note affixed to it with the words Drink Me written in girlish letters that he knew would smell like Sharpie ink. He twisted the top off and took a deep drink. Funny it didn’t taste like poison anymore.

As he replaced the top, he remembered waking in the van the day before. Was it really just yesterday? How could that possibly be? He thought about the springs, thought about swimming with Alice, about bathing in the hot pool, meeting Alice on the path, walking alone with the stick and the snakes, finding the note in his shoes.

His shoes.

He looked over at the van. His beat up dress shoes were neatly parked under the sliding door just as they had been yesterday. A scroll of paper was tucked into the left one, just as it had been yesterday. He unrolled it and held it to the sunlight, exactly as he’d done yesterday.

The note was written in familiar block letters with the artsy, girlish flair. It read:

Good morning, Henry,

Another day, another mission. I’m sure your CIA pals would approve. This is yours, should you choose to accept it:

1  Grab a towel and a pair of flip-flops from the blue duff.

2  Follow the trail in front of the van..

3  Find a really big stick to whack grass with (whatever!).

4  Find a high cliff that curves in on itself. 

5  Look for your friends.

Affectionately yours,

Alice ♥

PS  I recommend you start fretting it now, cuz we’re all naked.

PPS  Don’t worry about the snakes, they can’t hurt you anymore.

He read it again. Your friends are waiting for you. Your friends.

He looked up at the two-track meandering off into the rocky wilderness, and then he looked back at the park road doing the same in the opposite direction.

Two miles either way.

A half hour walk either way.

Take the two miles to them and he could finish the job at hand, set the wreckage on fire, and end it completely without any pesky lingering doubts or foolish hopes. He’d leave them a bad man, sure. A nut job loser, another close call on the road to love. But at least she’d know it was done. She’d have some closure.

Or…

Take the two miles toward the highway and simply ride off into the sunset. Maybe that way he’d only leave a burning bridge behind him. Maybe that way he’d leave it all clean and neat and minus the dirty drama. At least it’d be clean and neat for him, and to them he’d just be an asshole best quickly forgotten. Yeah, it might take a week or so before she understood the truth, but it sure as hell would be easier.

Two miles.

Two choices.

He looked up at the sun climbing above the mountain wall across the river from him. An eagle or vulture or some other ominous looking bird soared effortlessly just above the cliff’s edge. It had to be a mile high.

As he studied that portentous peak, he realized there was a third choice, after all. He felt a chill at the revelation, at once both frightening and thrilling. A third choice. The Grand Resolution. Maybe it was time. Maybe enough was enough. No, scratch that. Definitely. Enough was definitely enough.

He had butterflies in his stomach. He felt like a prisoner must feel in the minutes before they’re released. Sure, his prison had been hellish and brutal, but it’d still been home. At least for a while. It was right to suffer a little bout of melancholy when it came time to leave it behind, wasn’t it?

He closed his eyes and drew a steadying breath.

Then he laughed, and it surprised him. He hadn’t even seen it coming. He’d thought about the Grand Resolution a thousand times in these past four years. He’d even made plans, written notes, almost called people. But in spite of his intermittent convictions that it was the right thing to do, the only honest thing to do, something had always discouraged him.

The image of Zoe hanging from the garage rafter exploded through his mind. He choked back a cry.

He remembered the horror of finding her hanging there so grotesquely, the woman he’d made laugh, the woman he’d made love to back in the days before the fall. She was hanging as still as death, not like in the movies where they’re always swaying just a bit, the rope mournfully creaking, like the discovery had been made only seconds too late. He remembered the horror in her lifeless eyes, the urine pooled beneath her hovering feet, the little table with the grape vines lying sorrowfully on its side beneath her. It was that sight as much as his guilt that’d ruined his life.

And it was the same miserable image that stopped him every time.

He couldn’t follow the Grand Resolution, though he had absolutely no fear of doing so. He couldn’t follow it, because he couldn’t leave himself to be found by another person. He couldn’t bear to impose his monster onto someone else just because he was too cowardly to live with his guilt. He couldn’t bear the thought of transferring his angst into the heart of another. Better to die drunk in a mangled vehicle on some anonymous roadside. At least then, those who found him would just be doing their jobs.

And he especially could not pass that onto Alice. He could never do that to her.

If he did nothing else decent in his miserable life, he had to leave her as clean as he could manage. He picked up the note written in those girlish, serious, demanding letters. He folded it very carefully and tucked it into the pocket of Ed’s jeans. And then he did as she instructed.


THIRTY EIGHT

HENRY WALKED DOWN THE TWO-TRACK IN HIS BORROWED ORANGE FLIP-FLOPS.

He had no stick this time, exactly as ordered. He wasn’t even watching the grass with any particular interest. Alice was right, he had no need for the stick; the snakes couldn’t hurt him. Nothing could hurt anymore.

His mind was made up, the plan carefully scripted. He’d be on the road before day’s end. He’d leave the family behind with as little damage as he could manage. The only road bump in this otherwise flawless plan was Alice. He had to stand before Alice first.

He had to say goodbye to her face-to-face. Properly. He owed her that little bit of courtesy. Hell, he owed her a lot more than that. Maybe if he stood up to his fears just this once, not everything he left behind would be burning after all.

He worked his way along the stone path toward the river and pools. As he climbed down that final washout, he saw them. They were in the same hot pool as before. Except there were only three of them this time. As he walked closer, he harbored doubts. Two of them appeared to be wearing some kind of odd masks. Maybe this was the wrong crew.

Then the larger masked person waved to him, and Henry realized the grim truth. They weren’t wearing masks at all. It was Frank and Ed and their war wounds.

“Good morning, Sunshine,” Frank called to him as Henry walked up to the pool.

“Holy shit, Frank! You look like hell.” He did. His skin was bruised and swollen starting at the Frankenstein stitches on his forehead and running clear down the left side of his face to his jaw line. Half his lip was puffed out to the size of an orange slice.

“Why, thank you, Henry,” Frank said, laughing, “Sweet of you to say so. Now we look just like you, royal members of the Purple Face Clan.”

Ed was even worse. His eyes were swollen nearly shut. His lips looked like he’d been mummified, and his face was mostly the color of bad eggplant.

“Jesus, Ed,” Henry said, wincing, “Do you still have teeth under those lips?”

Ed made a sound like a laugh, but immediately contracted into a wince and groan.

Bridget stroked the back of his head too carefully. “He’s not going to be very pretty for a while,” she said, looking up at Henry, “But he’ll recover. Isn’t that right, baby?”

Ed looked at her like he wasn’t sure.

“You fared all right,” Frank said, grinning, “All you’re sporting is the same fading black eye you arrived wearing. Must’ve been the uniform.”

“Yeah, I only came away with a souvenir dent on the back of my skull. Might’ve split my lip a little, but it didn’t swell or anything.”

“Well, thank goodness you still have that sweet, boyish face,” Frank said, “In fact, I’d go so far as to say you actually look better today. Certainly more refreshed, no?” He threw Henry a wink with his good eye.

Henry’s shame gave him a cold slap. He spied the remaining spoils of the scotch from last night sitting on a rock next to Nancy’s head. He actively resisted the urge to dive for it.

“We’re packed up,” Frank said.

“Yeah, I saw that. Going home? Pilgrimage complete?”

“No, we’re moving north. Probably swing over to Taos for a couple days.”

“Taos?”

“Yeah, there are some old hot springs northwest of there. Ojo Caliente. Not rustic like this, but still classically delicious.”

“Sounds good.”

“We’d love if you came along, Henry,” Frank said too seriously, “But Alice says you’re moving on today. She gave us strict instructions not to press you. I’m probably going to receive a royal slapping for even mentioning it, so please have a heart, and don’t say anything.”

Alice says you’re moving on today. Henry’s legs wavered for just an instant. He forced a recovery, faked a laugh, and said, “No worries, Nancy. I’ve got your back.”

“It’s true, then? You’re really leaving us?”

Henry had nothing to say to that. His throat was too full of angst to speak, even if he’d had a ready answer. He simply nodded.

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that, Henry. I really am. I’d like to spend more time with you. I think we could’ve gotten to be close friends, actually. Of course, you’ll have the good taste not to mention that I said that, right? Reputation and all?”

“Frank’s reputation, sure,” Henry said too quickly.

“You’re really bumming me out, Henry,” Frank said softly. He looked like he meant it.

“I’m sorry. I’ve… I don’t know, got things to do, I guess. I mean, I just… I’ve got things to do.”

“Sure. I understand,” Frank said. He didn’t sound convinced.

“I appreciate that.”

“Actually, I’m lying. I don’t have a clue why you can’t join us. I mean, it’s not like you have a job or anything, right?” He laughed. Henry didn’t. “But… Alice made me swear I wouldn’t press it, so there you go.”

“Maybe I’ll catch up with you next year. Next pilgrimage.”

“You know, Henry, dear, I’m just not much for faking it. If it’s goodbye, let’s just make it goodbye. Let’s leave this memory tarnish-proof. No insincere promises, right?”

Henry nodded. “No insincere promises, Frank.”

They looked at each other for a moment. Then Frank said, “I could kiss you full on the lips for your contribution to the tribe. Not only did it make last night that much more fun, it’s making today a whole easier to take as well. I’m sure Ed feels the same way. We’d both be a hundred ways deeper in pain if we didn’t have the pills.”

Ed groaned and waved half-heartedly.

“Not a problem,” Henry said, “What you did for me was a hell of a lot bigger than that measly gift. I doubt I’ll ever be able to thank you, not properly.”

Frank grabbed the scotch bottle and took a deep slug off it. “I’d offer you a ride to the interstate,” he said as he capped the bottle, “But Alice has other plans, so I’d best leave that all to her.” He held the bottle up toward him.

Henry waved it off.

Frank shrugged, recapped, and set it back on the rock.

“So,” Henry said, “Where is the Queen of All She Surveys?”

“She’s out walking.”

“Walking?”

Frank raised his arm from the water and pointed toward the cliff face bowing in so dramatically over the river. Henry tracked it to the top, then looked back at Frank. “I’m not sure I get you? She’s rock climbing?”

“No, she just hiking, but she went that-a-way. There’s a gravel trail back before the washout. Follow it way uphill there. You’ll find her sooner or later. There’s only one path up and down.”

Henry nodded. He again looked up at the cliff. About a mile above them, two massive obelisks stood side by side at the very edge of the precipice like a pair of heavenly pillars. It looked like the place a young blonde woman might be chained before the giant gorilla comes along for her.

“Sure you don’t want a slug before you go?” Frank said, laughing.

Henry looked at him. “Who said I was going? Maybe I’ll just wait here, maybe catch a quick soak.”

“No obvious lies, Henry.”

Henry tried to laugh, but it died during birth. “Yeah, I’m going after her, I guess.”

“Better get a leg on, then. We’re leaving in ninety minutes.”

Henry looked back up at the pillars again. From way down here, it looked like the perfect place to throw himself to the rocks, a human sacrifice served up to appease the guilt gods. Then again, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice at all, would it? It would be more like penance.

“You worried,” Frank said.

Henry looked at him.

“Go after her, Henry. I’m pretty sure she’s not going to hurt you.”

“Yeah,” Henry said, “Yeah, I know that.”

“Really? You know that?”

“Yes, Frank. I know that.”

“Then why do you look like a man about to climb the stairs to the gallows?”


THIRTY NINE

HENRY MADE HIS WAY UP THE NARROW GRAVEL PATH WITH MORE EFFORT THAN SUITED HIM.

The air was significantly cooler at this altitude. He was a little surprised by that. If not for the sun on his bare back, he’d have been a lot more uncomfortable. He wished he’d worn his dress shirt, even with Alice’s accoutrements.

He laughed at that. The shirt. Grief! Though he was grateful, and even a little touched by her efforts to repair it, he didn’t know if he could ever wear it publicly. In fact, he’d never been more relieved than when she pushed him in the river yesterday. It’d gotten him out of having to wear it to the bar. He was just a tad too pretty for that whole metro-sexual look. He could only imagine what her shop must look like. He wondered if he’d ever see it?

He smothered that thought in its infancy. Would he ever star in his own sitcom? Would he ever be elected Pope? Would he ever grow wings? Each scenario was just about as likely as someday visiting Alice’s shop. No, he not only wouldn’t ever see her shop, he couldn’t ever see it. Not ever. He was saying goodbye. Today. Time to burn this manuscript before he wrote the tragic ending.

The first twenty minutes of his walk up the side of the mountain had been grueling. His flip-flops really weren’t up to the job of blazing through loose rocks and stones. Thankfully, the ground was now leveling off nicely, and the walk was actually becoming a pleasure. The path closely followed the edge of the cliff up here, a bit too closely for his taste. He could see the silvery tongue of the river winding through the debris way too far below him.

Off to his left was a hundred mile vista of absolutely nothing but mountainous ruins, rocks, and scrub. It was exactly like all the other ruins, rocks, and scrub he’d been suffering since this trip began, though higher and more jagged. He could only imagine what manner of creatures inhabited such a place. No wonder they called it the Badlands. At least, he thought they called it that. Or was that somewhere up north? Maybe Nebraska or Montana? Christ, a third grader had better geographic skills than he did.

He spied the pillars ahead, the same pillars he’d admired from that riverbank a mile below. They erupted from the rock at the cliff’s edge like giant fangs. They had to be forty or fifty feet tall, and they were a hell of a lot bigger around than he’d suspected from down there. They stood nearly at the drop itself. A craggy ridge half the height of the pillars wove away from them in either direction, so that it looked like a gate in a great stone wall. The space between the pillars was open and clear, like an entrance. Or an exit.

He soon passed along the rim of the first one, running his hand along its strangely smooth surface. The pillars were close enough that if he stood between them, he could touch them both with his arms outstretched. It was exactly as it’d appeared from down below, like some ancient temple used by aboriginal tribes to perform ceremonial sacrifices. He was a bit disappointed that there were no iron rings hanging from them.

With his fingertips pressing into the relentless granite of each pillar, he stepped through them, stopping just at the edge of the cliff. His toes tickled over the lip. The edge was straight and sharp, as if some mythical god had taken a gigantic chisel and split it open. It was a perfectly vertical drop here, falling straight down for several hundred feet. The drop ended where a massive washout finished the slope down near the river another several hundred feet further. The drop was breathtaking and astonishing, and tempting as hell.

Wouldn’t this be an absolutely brilliant place for the Grand Resolution. All he’d have to do is take a half a step forward, spread his dark wings, and lean into his fate. A moment of pristine weightlessness followed by an eternity of absolute freedom. The sad movie’s finally over. Drop the curtain. Everyone go home now, pay the sitter, and tuck your brats into bed.

Alice’s face flamed through his mind. He envisioned her finding his mutilated body awash on the rocks of the riverbank. He remembered the utter horror he’d suffered at finding Zoe hanging so unnaturally still from the manufactured rafters of his garage, and with that memory, the notion of a Grand Resolution died in the womb. He once again confirmed the utter impossibility of passing that anguish onto Alice, and thank the universe for it. It appeared there was still a little human left in him after all.

He saw Frank and company moving below on the other side of the river. They were so small, they seemed weirdly unreal and fully inconsequential, like at any moment some giant could come along and squish them with its heel. He wondered if that was why the Christian God so rarely intervened in the natural and human-manufactured horrors that incessantly ravaged this earth, because we all seemed so useless and insignificant from where He sat. Maybe His lack of participation in mortal lives wasn’t simple heartlessness on His part, after all. Maybe He just didn’t see the point in getting involved in the irrelevant struggles of those wee little ants down there.

He leaned further out over the drop for a better view. They were out of the pool. Frank was easy to spot because of his shape: A round, pink blob with man-tits. As naked Frank bent over and grabbed his towel, Henry was suddenly enormously grateful he’d taken this hike.

He tracked the line of the river back along a bend just below him, then over to a long, wide pool. The warm pool. It sat just before a wide dam of cascading water that seemed to be a source of the river. Funny he hadn’t noticed the waterfall when he was swimming with Alice. The water looked like mercury from here, shimmering silvery gray under the godlike force of the sun. He thought about yesterday morning and washing Alice’s hair. It was a good memory. For a change.

Frank and Bridget each had one of Ed’s arms around their shoulders as they made for the washout. Henry laughed and immediately felt guilty for it. Poor Ed. The man was a mess. He wished he’d been able to intervene faster last night. Then again, if he had, it might’ve been him being schlepped back to the camp instead of Ed. Frank said they were leaving in ninety minutes, but he couldn’t see it happening. It was going to take them that long to haul the corpse back to Fort Drift.

Watching them make their way, Henry felt the sting of urgency. He absolutely had to talk to Alice in private before they left. There wouldn’t be another opportunity. He needed to apologize for his dire mistake last night. He had to try to minimize the wreckage before he took his leave. He couldn’t bear another ghost following him. Especially not one with Alice’s face.

He took one more mental snapshot of the view, then reluctantly turned away.

He heard the dog bark before he saw it. The animal charged through the pillars for him, snarling and snapping at his legs. Henry lurched back from the animal. The effort cost him his balance. He grabbed for the pillars too late. His heel found air behind him. He was falling!


FORTY

HENRY FELT SOMETHING SNAG HIS BELT.

He stopped violently, wrenching his neck on the recoil. He immediately reeled forward and caromed off one of the pillars before spilling hard into the gravel, landing brutally on his hands and knees.

The dog was still barking. Someone was screaming. It sounded like a woman. He couldn’t get his breath. Hell, he could barely see. He could only grovel there on his hands and knees with his fingers dug into the dirt, too terrified to let go. His sight pulsed weirdly with each vicious heartbeat.

A hand pressed against his back. A pair of knees landed in the dirt before him. A dog the size of a lion licked his face. He grabbed its collar and held it at bay as he struggled to breathe.

A spilled picnic basket lay on its side in the dirt a few yards ahead of him. It blurred in and out of focus to the rhythm of his pulse. He worried that if he didn’t get his breath back soon it would be his parting image.

“Are you all right?” It was a woman. “Oh my, I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?”

The dog slopped his face with such zeal that Henry had to close his eyes or risking losing one. It was brown and scruffy with half-cocked ears. He pushed the dog’s head back. He realized it was a man kneeling before him. Alice stood just back behind him on the safer ground beyond the pillars. She looked like she’d just seen the white light. He had to go to her, had to reassure her that everything was all right, that he hadn’t fallen, that he was safe.

And then he realized it wasn’t Alice at all. It was younger woman, another blonde.

“I can’t believe it!” the man said, “That was too close! Are you all right, sir?”

Still on his hands and knees, Henry looked up at him. “Too close?” he said between pants, “That’s the best you can do? Too fucking close? I was walking on air there. That dog damned near killed me.”

“I know. Oh God! I can’t tell you how sorry I am!”

The dog dove into his face again, slopping at him with even greater enthusiasm. Henry couldn’t seem to pull away from it. He wondered if it was apologizing.

“Come here, Crito,” the woman ordered the dog, “Back! Back!”

The dog pawed the dirt as the woman reeled him back by his leash.

Henry pushed himself back onto his heels. He wiped as his mouth and watched the dog. His hands shook like a dry drunk’s.

“Crito?” he said, looking up the woman, “Wh-what the hell kind of name is that for a dog?”

“Why, it’s Greek,” she said. She said like he’d asked her if water was wet.

“Greek?” His breath was finally returning. He looked at the man kneeling across from him, “Greek was my weak subject. Now, Babylonian history? Yeah, that’s more my cup of tea.”

“Really?” the man asked seriously.

“Hell, no. I don’t even know what state Babylonia’s in. I’m thinking maybe Alabama.”

The man just looked at him. Then he laughed. “Alabama,” he said, “You had me.”

“What? That’s not right?”

The man stood up, then threw a hand down to Henry. “Let’s get away from the drop,” he said, “Man, I think I’m going to dream about this for the rest of my life.”

You are?” Henry snapped back, “Hell, I may never climb stairs again.” He accepted the hand and rolled up to his feet.

“Holy hell!” the man said, gripping Henry’s shoulder, “I am so sorry. That was too close! If I’d known anyone was around I’d never have let Crito—”

“It’s all right,” Henry said waving him silent, “Really, it’s all right. Forget it. It’s over. Seriously.”

“Forget it? How could I ever forget it? You damned near went soles up. You would’ve been killed! How can I forget that?”

“Let it go,” Henry said again, more insistently, “I mean it. A few minutes ago I was thinking about jumping anyway, so falling would’ve just kept me on track.” He faked a grin. They didn’t grin back.

The woman he’d thought was Alice slipped past her husband and took Henry’s hand. “Please come away from there,” she said like she meant it, “You’re giving me the willies! I swear, I cannot abide another fright.”

Henry allowed her to lead him to safety. She didn’t seem intent on letting go of his hand anytime soon. He looked at her engorged belly and immediately remembered her. This was the couple he’d seen setting up camp yesterday. He’d thought she looked familiar then, and now that he saw her up close, he knew why. She was a younger version of Alice. Same green eyes, same appealing smile, same blonde hair worn a bit longer. He thought this must be what Alice looked like when she was twenty, or would have been if she’d been morbidly pregnant.

“I’m Henry,” he said. She still had his hand.

“Henry, yes. I’m Beth. This is my husband, Ike. You already met Crito.”

“Yes, I did.” He noticed her eyes were wet and suffered a pang of guilt for it.

“Well, I’m just good and sorry,” she said like she’d never been more serious about anything in her life, “It was reckless to let him run. He should have been on a darned leash. We didn’t know—”

“Stop!” Henry said, “Stop already. Please, you’re forgiven. Seriously. I can’t handle any more apologies. Everything’s fine. Now, can I please have my hand back.” He smiled at her.

She looked up at him, then covered her mouth. She was about to dive into a full bore cry.

“No, Beth, don’t cry,” he said quickly, taking her shoulders, “I mean it. It’s all over now. No harm, no foul.” He didn’t know what else to say, he had no experience with consolation. Seemed like it was always him doing the apologizing.

Beth pushed out a labored smile as she wiped away her tears. She was watching him too intensely. She had eyes that made him feel like there was no one else in the room.

He wheeled his attention to her husband. “Gotta love those reflexes, Ike. You couldn’t have called it any closer. Thanks a bunch.”

“Yeah, not so sure about that,” Ike said. He sounded Midwestern. “You wouldn’t have needed me if hadn’t been for Crito’s lousy timing. Didn’t think we’d need to leash him up here. I mean… there aren’t many campers out and about this weekend, you know?”

“I don’t care what the cause was. You saved my butt. Going to take me a while to pay that debt back.”

“No debt,” Ike said, grinning, “I absolve you.”

“Perfect. We’re all even then.” Henry again noticed the spilled basket. He walked over and knelt before it. “Sorry about your picnic,” he said as he righted it. He began replacing the contents, beginning with two bottles of white wine that were calling his name. They were still cool.

Beth knelt beside him and joined in. Crito was licking his face again. The dog obviously felt pretty bad about nearly killing him. Henry gave his head a good scruffing.

“We were going to set up for lunch here, Henry,” Ike said behind him, “Please join us for a quick sandwich?”

“Thanks,” Henry said over his shoulder, “You don’t have to feed me. It’s a perfect day for romance. You should just enjoy it yourselves.”

Then he felt Beth’s hand on his shoulder. He stopped repacking the picnic, and looked over at her.

“Have a glass of wine with us. Please? We can all use one after that near calamity. Isn’t that right, dearest?”

“Wiser words I’ve never heard, Lovey,” Ike said.

Her eyes were so much like Alice’s, so green and unrelenting. It was at once both disarming and a little unsettling.

“What do you say, Henry?” she pressed, “Please, don’t make me ask you a third time.”

Henry finally relented. “Okay, General. Doesn’t sound like I have a choice.”

“You do not, sir.”

“But I don’t have the proper attire.” He looked down at his bare chest. “I’m afraid. My uniform’s being repaired.”

“Uniform?” she said, smiling brightly, “What branch of service are you in?”

“I’m in the superhero division.”

She kept smiling, but he could see the words streaking across the back of her eyes as she processed them.

“Beth? I’m kidding?”

She laughed with him as she returned to her basket. “Of course, you are Henry. Why, I knew that, of course I did.”

He couldn’t resist laughing with her. And as he did, he thought again of Alice.


FORTY ONE

HENRY WASHED THE LAST OF HIS CHEESE SANDWICH DOWN WITH THE LAST OF HIS WINE.

He’d never been overly fond of wine, but this particular label was sweet and crisp, and somehow hit the spot dead-on. Then again, he would’ve thought rubbing alcohol ambrosia after what just happened. He leaned back against the cool rock wall with his plastic wine glass balanced on his knee.

They were parked in the shade, sitting in a sandy space beneath a ridge of solid stone. The shade felt as refreshing as the wine. There was even some grass here. It was almost like he wasn’t on the lunar surface anymore.

Ike lay on his elbow across the flowery blue blanket from him, half in and half out of the sun. He was about the same build as Henry, though thinner, less matured. He had the same dark hair, though a little longer. They might have been brothers, though Ike had to be at least ten years younger.

Crito laid in the dirt just a respectable distance off the picnic blanket, soaking up the sunlight. Beth sat in a triangulated position between him and Ike. She wore a pale yellow sundress and sat cross-legged with her belly testing the dress’s seams. He couldn’t stop peeking at it, though he didn’t understand why. He’d never been overly fond of breeders. In fact, pregnant women usually repulsed him. The idea of something growing inside their abdomen? It was creepy, all Aliens and crap. He’d never found it even remotely appealing. Not before this.

“Beth,” he said to her, “I’m probably putting myself in peril by asking this. So, if it happens I’m wrong, feel free to march me back to the pillars and finish what Crito started.”

“Eight months, Henry. And yes, you should be very, very careful when broaching that topic with a woman.”

“Yeah… I thought so.”

“If you’d been wrong. I would’ve taken you up on your offer. Isn’t that right, Ike?”

“You are so right, honey,” Ike said like he’d rehearsed the line.

Beth reached for Henry’s glass. “You were safe asking me,” she said as she refilled it, “I mean, the bump is ridiculously obvious. Still, I’d advise great caution if a woman has the bump and she’s packing weight elsewhere. Particularly if she’s toting saddlebags or cankles.”

Henry accepted the wine. “Sage advice. Gratefully accepted.”

“As it should be,” she said, giggling.

She had one of those rare laughs, the kind that make you want to make her laugh more just so you can hear it. He thought about Alice, and he suddenly felt lonely, which only served to fuel his angst. What the hell was happening to him lately? He needed a distraction.

“How long have you been married?” he said to Ike, more to get someone talking than out of curiosity.

“Six months,” Ike replied.

Henry held his glass out to him. “Well, congratulations on getting a running start. No time like the pregnant, eh?”

Beth laughed and flipped a grape at him. “That’s some style you have there, Henry.”

Ike saluted him with his glass. “Well said.”

“You got an early start on the whole family package thing,” Henry said, looking at Ike.

“Like you could resist sampling that dessert before the meal?” Ike said, grinning slyly, “I mean, look at her. She’s breathtaking. And under all that pregnant, she’s hotter than a—”

“Ike!” Beth said with faux mortification, “We have a guest!”

“Anyway, it’s a defensive move,” Ike said, “Beth demands my attention twenty-four/seven. It’s more than any mere mortal man can handle, so I figured I’d best build myself a couple allies to help out.”

Beth threw a grape at him. “Jerk!”

“Witch,” he said back.

They both laughed. Then Ike rolled forward and kissed her.

Henry looked down at his glass. It was another mind-freaking moment in an equally mind-freaking outing. They looked so much like him and Alice it was uncanny. It was as surreal as the bar fight, but pushing entirely different buttons.

“Henry?”

His name startled him back to the moment. He looked over at Alice. No! It wasn’t Alice. It was Beth.

“Are you all right, Henry?”

“Me? Sure.”

“You look a little pale.”

“No, I’m good. Just thinking.”

She was watching him more than closely. He suddenly felt uncomfortable. Or maybe out of place. More like out of time.

“How old are you two?” he heard himself ask. He had no idea where he was going with this. Maybe he was just trying to find the ground again. Maybe he was trying to prove to himself that he was lucid.

“I’m twenty-two,” Ike said, “Beth just turned twenty.”

Henry barely heard him. He put the wine down on the blanket.

“We’ve been together since sixth grade,” Beth said, smiling sweetly at Ike, “We’ve been planning to marry since we were kids. We were born for each other.”

Henry looked at her. He had no response for that. He didn’t even know how to process a statement like that, how to put it in perspective. He had no basis to compare it.

“We knew we were right where we were supposed to be,” Beth said, sipping from her water bottle, “So why wait? College, work, death, it all comes around one way or another. Sooner or later, or somewhere in between? I prefer sooner. Get it?”

Henry again had nothing to say to that. Sooner or later? It felt like a foreign concept, like translating Aloha into both goodbye and hello. His was a life permanently locked into a single moment of time. What possible difference could sooner or later make in a life that never moved?

“Frankly,” Beth said, “I’ve never understood why people put off all the really important events in their lives.”

Her voice startled him back to the now. He looked over at her.

“It makes no sense to delay taking what you most desire until after you’ve supposedly cleared your hurdles. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” he said. He didn’t.

“If you’re in love,” Beth said, looking at Ike, “I mean, like the real deal, not an infatuation or a crush or anything? If you know this is where you’re supposed to be? Then what’s the point of losing all those years of togetherness while you traipse around after school and career? Why not live them simultaneously? You can never get those years back, right?”

“Right,” he said. It was a sour thought, and he had no desire to linger there. He tried to think of a way to change the topic, but nothing seemed forthcoming.

“Isn’t it better,” she said as if it were ridiculously obvious, “To be together while you’re pursing college and career or whatever? Isn’t it better to act on those desires now and avoid wishing later for the things you neglected to pursue? You can’t refill a clock, Henry.”

That image stopped him cold.

You can’t refill a clock.

He couldn’t argue it. It was the absolute truth, and he was sure he understood it much more intimately than she ever could. She might understand it in theory, academically, but he understood it in practice. And what she especially didn’t see from her post so many years behind him was that it was monumentally more complicated than that. The further along you meandered through life, the more life got in the way. It was something she’d learn soon enough. She just needed a few more years, just enough time to see her dog die, or watch her babies getting sick, or catch her husband singing to some sweet little thing on the side, something younger and prettier and more available than her.

He felt a surge of fear he couldn’t explain. He took a slug of the medicine.

“Are you all right, Henry,” she asked him too nicely.

He was getting good and bloody sick of that question. It seemed to be coming around a lot lately.

“You look a little pale,” she said, “Maybe you should have some more wine.”

He steadied himself. Then he looked at her again. “I get the clock thing,” he said, “Unfortunately, it’s nothing like that simple.”

“What does that mean?” She sounded serious.

“I mean, your analogy. The conflict of a refilling a clock. It’s overly simple. The truth is more shadowy.”

“Really? Well, please elaborate.”

He watched her. He couldn’t tell if there was sarcasm in her response or not. The sun had risen a bit higher, and her face was now fully in the light. She was very beautiful. She was very Alice. It gave him faith, though he couldn’t explain why. He finished his wine.

“You’re talking about regrets,” he said as he fingered the glass.

“Maybe you do understand,” she said.

“Maybe I understand?” He refilled his glass without asking permission. “It’s plenty easy to say you’re going to actively avoid regrets. And believe me, I have some experience with regrets. But the real world is one crossroad or fork or dead end or switchback after another, and there’s usually no signpost saying Regrets This Way, Contentment That Way. Usually, you blindly pick a route and are startled to find regret waiting for you a little farther down the road. It usually hides in the shadows so it can jump out and scare the hell out of you.”

“You make it sound unavoidable,” she said. She didn’t sound like she agreed. In fact, she sounded a little annoyed.

“It is,” Henry said, “No matter how wisely or carefully you pick your way through life, you’ll sooner or later realize that somewhere back there you took the wrong turn. Somewhere back there you missed the sign that said ‘I’d turn back if I were you.’”

He was surprised to see no sign of Zoe. She’d usually be climbing up from her grave about now. He found himself a little disappointed by that. She was the source for his thesis on regret, after all.

“Sooner or later?” Beth said, “Why would you say that? Seems to me we have more control than that. Yes, there may be the occasional minor exception, but by and large… well, a little dollop of wisdom can spare one a barrel of grief.”

Henry found himself laughing at that.

“Oh, that’s funny, is it, Henry?” she asked like it was a dare.

“Yes, Beth, it is,” Henry said plainly, “Most of us can’t just dollop the wisdom around like we’ve got a vat of it to tap.”

“Do tell,” she said. She was actually sounding a bit pissed.

Henry looked her dead on. “All right,” he said, “You think you can control every aspect of your fate because you’re still young. But that’s just a lie you tell yourself, a lie that reveals itself later, when you’re older, when it’s far too late to make U-turn and go back. The truth is sometimes you’re forced down a path you don’t choose. Sometimes regrets are imposed on you despite your best intentions to avoid them. You can’t control the people around you. You can’t change their foolish decisions. And you can’t even always control how you’ll react to them. You can wash your hands twenty-four hours a day, but you’ll still eventually catch the flu. It’s the law of statistics.”

“Statistics,” she said with a smile that smelled of condescension, “Of course, there are no absolutes. I’m not—”

“Sometimes we simply fall victim to life,” he said, wanting to put a stake through this whole conversation, “We’re all human, right? None of us are gods. None of us have nearly the control we think we do.”

“Well, that’s quite true, Henry,” she said, still smiling suspiciously, “Yes, it is. We are indeed all extremely and irreversibly human.”

He lifted his glass to her with the intention of making a toast and changing the miserable subject.

“But that sounds a bit too much like a copout for my taste.”

The wine glass sank back to his thigh.

“I’m sorry if it offends,” she said, “But that perspective is simply an effort to dodge responsibility, a copout, if you will. Why, of course I’d never propose that all regrets can be avoided. Of course life is dynamic and as unpredictable as the path of a butterfly. But your perspective sounds like an excuse.”

“An excuse?”

“Yes, Henry, an excuse. A reason to stop trying. A reason to abandon all efforts to avoid such intersections where a carefully thought out decision may avert a lifetime of regret.”

“Wow,” Henry said, “Nice shot.” It absolutely was.

“It wasn’t a shot, Henry. It’s merely an observation.”

“I’m kidding,” he said without knowing why. He wasn’t kidding in the least. Then he simply added, “I understand,” in hopes of putting this fire out.

“I’m not sure you are. Or do.”

Her eyes were drilling into him. He’d thought he’d taken back control of the steering wheel, but he clearly wasn’t in the driver’s seat anymore. Hell, he wasn’t even in the damned car. She had him totally on the run.

“It’s a pretty simple formula,” she continued, “There are only two elements that matter in our entire lives, time and mind.”

“Here we go,” Ike said. He rolled over onto his back.

“Time and mind,” Henry repeated.

“Yes, time and mind. Time only exists in the present. There is no past, nor any future, only now, only this very moment we’re sharing right now.”

Henry shrugged. “Keep going.”

“The past is a book. The future’s essentially a project plan. Neither are real. Are you with me?”

“I believe so.”

“You only ever write in your book in the here and now. You write in the moment. You can’t go back in time and edit it. You can’t write ahead for the future. You can only write now.”

“Are you trying to drag me down into an intellectual swamp, Beth?”

She giggled at that. “No, Henry. I’m educating you.”

He held his glass out toward her. “In that case, I may need some more gas”

She leaned over with the bottle and topped him off. “The past is a history book, a point of reference, nothing else. Its only function is to provide a basis for the moments that follow.”

“The Philosopher Queen,” Ike said, saluting her with his glass.

Beth threw another grape at him.

“So,” Henry said, “Let me see if I have this. The past is a book.”

“You’re not listening, Henry.”

That one felt like a slap. “I think I am, Beth.”

“No. You hear the words, but you’re not listening to them. The past sets the standards against all your future decisions, but it’s not real. It’s a diary, just an echo of moments gone by.”

“An echo,” he said.

“Exactly. And that’s where the mind comes in, element two of the formula. The mind can look at the current state, then reference the past to make a decision. If I do X, will I regret it later? What do I have experientially to measure this against? What I have I experienced in the past that is close to X? Are you still with me?”

He sure was. And he hated it. He looked at his wrist and was pleasantly surprised to find his watch still missing. He wondered how long he’d been sitting here? Maybe if he stayed long enough, Fort Drift would set sail without him. He wondered what would happen if it did. Would this prove another much-deserved opportunity for regret?

“Henry?”

He looked over at her. “Yes, Beth. I’m here.”

“Does that make more sense?”

“It does. I understand what you’re saying, I actually do.”

“I imagine it’s harder for people like you, Henry.”

That remark startled him. “Is that supposed to mean something to me, Beth?”

“I think so. Using your regrets crossroads analogy, I believe some people are just less inclined to read the signs. Some people even make a conscious decision to deliberately avoid looking at the signs. I think those are the kind of people who actively collect regrets because they think they deserve them.”

“Really?” Henry said.

“Yes. You, for instance.”

Henry felt the needle skip off the record with that one. He suddenly reconsidered Fort Drift. Maybe he should catch up with them after all. Maybe he should get up now and run his sorry ass all the way back to camp.

“It’s not a bad thing,” Beth continued, either oblivious to his terror or in enjoyment of it, “It’s just that some people simply prefer traveling the hard way versus taking a nice straight line, and I think you’re one of them.”

Henry reeled at that. It was all too fantastic, all too paranormal to be real. How many times had he heard that same observation on this terrifying journey, that he liked the hard way? Maybe this was some kind of final mental voyage before the white light. Maybe he never made that dirty gas station restroom. Maybe he was dying on the side of some backwoods road, deep in the wilds of New Mexico, and this was the psychotic equivalent of watching his life pass before his eyes!

“Henry?”

Henry nearly jumped out of his pants. He looked over at her.

“Please don’t take it wrong,” she said, “I don’t mean to be rude. It’s just… well, I have a sense about people.”

“You have got to be kidding!” Henry looked at Ike. “What about you? Do you have a sense about people, too?”

“Nah. I barely even notice people.”

“I’m sorry, Henry,” Beth said, grabbing his ankle, “I’ve offended you. I didn’t mean to. I actually like you.”

“No,” Henry said, “No, it’s not that. It’s just… it’s just that practically every person I’ve met over the last two days has told me the same thing, that they had a sense about me, that I like to go the hard way, whatever the hell that means.”

“You know exactly what it means. Don’t fake coy.”

“Coy? I’m not being coy. I’m just freaking out! It’s the weirdest damned thing I’ve ever experienced.”

“Is it?”

“Hell, yes, it is!” It came out louder than he’d intended.

He looked down at her hand still holding his foot, and as he studied that event he tried to regroup.

“I feel like I’m in another dimension,” he said after a moment, “A place where everyone on the planet has the Henry Sight except Henry. Everyone understands me on contact, no warm up, no getting to know you, just touch hands and instant insight.”

“Well, that sounds like a blessing, Henry.”

“A blessing? Are you serious?”

She took a sip of her water. She carefully recapped the bottle. Her eyes never left him. “Maybe you’re being given the Henry Sight by proxy.”

“Are you joking?”

“Maybe your current trip is some kind of… I don’t know, cosmic gift. Maybe you were destined to meet these people, dear. Maybe you were supposed to learn from them.”

Henry looked at his bare wrist and was yet again surprised by his surprise at seeing his watch still gone. Not that he needed it. He knew exactly what time it was. It was time to go. In fact, it was well past time to go. He should’ve taken Option Two when he woke up this morning and simply abandoned the team back at camp, just hit the road and let them watch his tail lights fade. This wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t even interesting.

“You seem like a good man, Henry.”

Henry looked at her. He suddenly felt dried up, like his voice had abandoned him, like there was nothing left to say. He felt fully and completely spent.

“I think you’re the only person you know that doesn’t like you,” Beth continued too gently, “If what you say is true, I can only imagine what a journey this past couple days must have been for you. My advice, if you want it, is to take the profit from your encounters and spend it wisely.”

“Wait,” Henry said, waving his hand, “Wait. Wait. Wait. If what I say is true? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s not meant an insult, Henry. It’s an observation, a glimpse of insight shared with you most affectionately.” Her smile consumed her whole face now.

An observation? So why did it feel more like a dissection? And yet, in the end, he knew she was right. He was just throwing up the walls when he should be tearing them down. As usual.

“I believe you,” he said at last, because, seriously, what else could he say? “And I’m not insulted.” He actually wasn’t. More like stunned. He took another slug of his medicine.

“Good,” she said, “We’re all brothers and sisters in Jesus, after all.”

Henry snorted wine all over the blanket.

Beth laughed. “Just kidding, Henry.”

He was about to retort when the dog started yelling. The animal tore away from the blanket and raced around the rocks and out of sight. An instant later, a woman screamed.


FORTY TWO

HENRY WAS INSTANTLY ON HIS FEET.

Crito had raced off around the rocks and was barking like he’d seen the devil.

Henry and Ike ran toward the chaos. The dog had a woman pinned back against the rocks. The woman was Alice. She was whacking at the dog with an open umbrella.

Ike dragged Crito back by the collar. Alice flew into Henry’s arms.

“Land sakes!” she shrieked, “That damned dog about scared me to death!”

“I am so sorry!” Ike said. He physically made Crito sit.

“Are you hurt?” Henry asked her as he held her.

“No, I don’t think so. Just scared.”

“What happened?” It was Beth.

“Crito had this woman pinned down,” Ike said, “I think he scared her pretty good.”

“Oh, Crito,” Beth said worriedly, “He’s such a bad, bad boy. Is she all right?”

Henry quickly inspected Alice. She wore cargo shorts and a wifebeater. Her hair was drawn back into a short ponytail. He looked down at her bare legs. She appeared unharmed. He looked at her shirt again and suffered a tingle of pure joy. She’d just restored his faith in wifebeater’s.

“She’s okay,” he said as he pulled Alice back into his arms, “No damage.” He thought about the look on her face when Crito was terrorizing her, and he started laughing.

Alice pushed him back to arms’ length. “Henry Lowenherz Smith! Are you laughing at me?”

“Me?” he said, trying not to grin, “Never! Alice, how could you accuse me of such a thing?” He couldn’t smother his humor.

“I nearly got mauled,” she said. Her eyes grew redder as she looked at him. “I was scared, Henry.”

Henry pulled her back in again. “I’m sorry,” he said as he stroked her hair, “I’m not laughing at you. I’m just really glad to see you. The dog did the same thing to me, but it’s all right now. Crito’s harmless.”

“Crito?” she said into his shoulder.

“The dog. That’s his name.”

“Crito? What kind of name is that for a dog?”

“It’s Greek,” he said.

“Greek?”

“Yep.”

“Greek wasn’t my strong subject,” she said seriously.

“That’s exactly what I told them.” He turned her toward the younger couple. “Alice, meet our neighbors, Ike and Beth. Beth is the one with the bowling ball under her shirt.”

Beth went straight up to Alice and took her by the shoulders. “Heavens above, I’m so sorry, Alice. Crito’s harmless, but he’s the guardian type. He can be scary, but only because he’s loud. Well, loud and large, I suspect.”

“And stupid as a stump,” Ike added.

Alice wiped her cheek. “It’s all good,” she said, looking down at the restrained lion, “He startled me is all.”

Ike picked up her umbrella. It was still open, though half of the ribs were bent the wrong way. “I’m sorry about your umbrella,” he said sheepishly, “I might be able to fix it.”

“It’s just a sunbrella,” Alice said, “It’s got too many tiny tears to use in the rain anyway. Don’t even worry about it.”

“I love carrying umbrellas when I walk,” Beth said, “It’s so romantic, don’t you think?” She still had a hand on Alice’s shoulder.

Henry looked at them and felt almost weak in the knees. They could’ve been sisters. Hell, they should’ve been sisters. Beth looked more like Alice than Bridget did.

Alice slipped an arm around Beth’s shoulder and laid a hand on her belly. “Beth, when are you due?”

“One month,” Henry said.

Alice looked at him.

“I just had lunch with them. Beth was explaining the Meaning of Life to me.”

“Oh,” she said, looking back at Beth.

“Hold it right there,” Henry said to Beth, “Help me understand. How is it women can ask that question straight out, while men have to dance all around it for fear of castration?”

Beth laughed. “Why, it seems perfectly obvious to me,” she said, looking at Alice, “Because men, as a rule, are perfect idiots.”

“Land sakes, Beth,” Alice said, pulling her in for a hug, “I think I’m really going to like you.”

“The feeling is mutual, Alice.”

Alice stroked Beth’s belly affectionately. “I think you’re the most beautiful pregnant woman I’ve ever seen.”

They stood arm in arm, smiling at each other like they’d just fallen in love.

Ike startled Henry with a slap on the back. “Come on, Henry,” he said, “I’ve got another bottle of wine stowed. I think we’d best fortify ourselves against the impending syrup.”


FORTY THREE

HENRY HELD ALICE’S HAND AS THEY WALKED DOWN THE GRAVEL PATH TOWARD THE TWO-TRACK LEADING BACK TO CAMP.

The sun seemed to grow more intense by the minute. He looked down at her pale skin so fully exposed by the wifebeater. He hoped she didn’t take a burn.

“Henry?”

“Alice?”

“They were a lovely couple, don’t you think.”

“Yes, Alice. Absolutely darling.”

“I’m serious.”

“I know you are.”

They continued walking.

Henry was starting to feel sick again. Every pace took them closer to the end, closer to the moment when he’d be watching the van drive off into the sunset. His head was a mess. He kept thinking about Beth and her observations on time and mind. She’d planted the seeds of torture in his head, and he had a feeling it was going to be growing there for a while.

“Henry?”

Her voice startled him, and he cursed himself for it. “Yes, Alice?”

As they walked, she studied the road before her feet as if looking for lost change. “Did you notice anything odd about those two?” she said softly.

“Yeah, she was pregnant as hell, and they have queer notions about dog names.”

“They kind of looked like us.”

Henry’s stomach gave him another twist. It wasn’t just him. She’d seen it, too.

Alice continued studying the path passing beneath them. He could practically hear the gears grinding. He felt like a deadman walking, like he was making the final march down a long, windowless corridor toward a cold cot and a hypodermic needle. He thought about Beth. He remembered what she’d said about regret, about the mind being the second part of the equation. A person can look at the current state, cross-reference the past, then act accordingly. If I do X, will I regret it later? If I do Y, will I find happiness?

“I know you’re leaving today,” Alice said suddenly.

Her grip on his hand was too tight. She was looking up at him. No, correction, she was studying him. Closely. This would be a bad time to falter.

“Yes, Alice,” he said as firmly as he could manage, “I am. I’m leaving. I have to.”

She nodded. “I understand, Henry. It’s all right.”

Henry felt disappointed by her response. It also didn’t surprise him.

“It’s best,” he said carefully, “I’m wound too tight. When I finally spring, I wreck everyone around me.”

“I know. I can see that.” She wasn’t smiling anymore.

They stopped. He considered taking her other hand, but he didn’t. Instead, he just stood there facing her.

“There’s… there’s something I need to tell you,” he said. He immediately regretted the hesitation in his voice. “I’m not sure how to approach it, so I’m just going to put it out there, okay?”

She shrugged. “You need my permission? Just say it.”

Her tone wasn’t promising.

“I shouldn’t have slept with you last night.” He bristled at that. He shouldn’t have put it so straight out there. It came off cold.

“What did you say?” she said. It sounded like a dare, like go ahead, Henry, go ahead and say that again.

He felt suddenly chilled. His testicles were trying to dig their way to safety in his abdomen.

“I… I promised myself I wouldn’t, you see,” he willed himself to say, “I… I mean to say… it feels…”

“Yes?”

Say it, damn you. Stop acting like a schoolboy. Be a man for once in your fucking life. “It was wrong,” he said at last, “I was wrong. I took advantage of you.”

“You took advantage of me.” It wasn’t a question.

“I didn’t mean to. I mean, I never planned to. I just… I didn’t want to…”

She watched him too closely. She had no expression, but her lasers were at full acceleration. “You didn’t want to what, Henry?”

He forced himself to keep eye contact. He was sweating. Again!

“You didn’t want to what?” she pressed.

“I didn’t want to be a… a drive-by. I guess.”

“A drive-by? And that means…?”

“It means I didn’t want to be a one-nighter. I didn’t want to use you. I had no right to. I’m starting to care about you, and I can’t—”

“Shut up!”

She dropped his hand. For a moment, she just stood there, glaring up at him.

“Alice, I—”

“Just shut your mouth, Henry. It’s my turn to speak.”

He did exactly as told. He couldn’t have spoken if he’d wanted to.

“You are one vain prick.”

For just an instant, he was certain he’d heard her wrong, but the fire in her eyes quickly burned away the fog of that misconception. He was about to apologize, but quickly reconsidered. He was plenty deep in the hole. Time to stop digging.

Alice shoved her fists into her hips. “You know, your arrogance is absolutely mind blowing.”

“Alice, I want to—”

“I told you to shut up, Henry!”

Her words knocked the wind out of him. He wanted to protest, but her expression looked like the wrong end of a gun. He decided to follow her advice and suffer the oncoming beating like a man.

“How do you know I didn’t sleep with you?” she said.

“What?”

“Do I really look that delicate? That weak? Like a girl who drops her panties and bends over the car fender at the first sad story she hears? Oh, poor, poor Henry! Such a pathetic story! Why, I was so moved I simply had to let him fuck me!”

The blood drained from his body. He felt momentarily disoriented. “What? What are you talk—”

“You are some piece of work, Henry Lowenherz Smith. Who the hell do you think you are? Some All Powerful God of Misery that controls the emotions of everyone around him?”

“You—”

“No, you! You think everyone around you is in mortal peril from your deep, dark angst, don’t you? You think you leave some kind of burning path of crying, wounded people behind you every time you go to the grocery store. Well, I have news for you, Dr. Doom. Sometimes all you leave behind is a bunch of people who just think you’re an asshole.”

“Alice, what are you—”

She threw a hand over his mouth. “Shut up, Henry! You shut up and you listen to me before I beat you to a bloody pulp! You’ve made yourself an island of unhappiness. You hold onto your grief the way a toddler holds a blanket. You hide behind it like a coward, avoiding anything in life that might offer any hint of forgiveness or normalcy. You’re always never home. You’re always looking for the nearest exit, and you’ve been doing it for so long you aren’t even aware of it anymore. It’s become instinct now.”

Her words thoroughly routed him.

“You’re pathetic,” she continued, “You know the truth behind your sorry state, but you refuse to act against it, maybe because it looks like too much work, or maybe because you just like being the sorry, misunderstood sad sack. Maybe it’s just a nice, safe wall, or a good excuse to evade responsibility. You’re so… so…”

She stopped. She seemed almost short of breath in her anger. Her eyes were wet and sorry. He wanted to take her, wanted to pull her into his arms and not let go. But he didn’t. How could he? The plan was too close to perfect now.

They stood there in the brutal sun, staring at each other in mortal silence for what felt like forever. Then Alice sniffed and dragged her wrist under her nose.

“Then again,” she said as she looked off in the direction of camp, “Maybe I’m the pathetic one. I believed that buried somewhere under all that garbage was a good heart. And damn, I wish there had been, because somehow over the last couple days, I’ve fallen in love with you.”

Henry felt like he was falling, like he’d so thoroughly ravaged his world that nothing physical was left to keep him anchored to it. He had nothing to say, nothing that could do her justice. She deserved better. He again opened his mouth to speak and again was abandoned by his tongue. He threw his eyes to the dirt separating them.

“So, that’s it, then,” she said at last, “Yeah? This is how it ends, is it? You standing there like a fucking mute? Feeling sorry for yourself? Patting yourself on the back for being such a successful failure? Maybe you’ll wait until I’m out of sight and throw yourself a high-five? Maybe scoot out a quick victory dance?”

“Alice, no! I—”

“Shut up, Henry. See, here’s the thing. I’m beginning to love you, but I don’t want you. I don’t want you in my life. I don’t want you anywhere close to it. Even if you asked to come with us, I’d never, ever allow it. Not because of your garbage, but because of your contentment with it, because you won’t do anything about it.”

Henry stood there staring stupidly at her. There wasn’t a word in his head. Nothing. He’d just been completely stripped of his medals.

Before he could pull himself together, she dropped her arms and stepped up to him. She tipped up on her toes, took his face in her hands, and pressed her lips into his. She held him that way forever.

Then she released him and backed off, backpedalling slowly away from him like she was never coming back, and in that moment, everything about her changed. She looked up at him now like he was a memory, like she was already mourning him. There were no more lasers examining him. There wasn’t even any interest. Alice was gone.

He watched her trotting down the path away from him. She was finished. She’d completed her dissection of his Magnum Opus with the greatest efficiency and precision, and now she was done with the entire affair. He considered going after her, but he couldn’t find the will to order the pursuit. He felt weak and hopeless. He felt utterly indecisive.

And yet, in the end, he knew he had indeed made a decision. Inaction is action, isn’t that right? This was what he’d planned for all along, wasn’t it? He hadn’t even had to pull the trigger himself. She’d done it for him. It was the perfect solution.

Still, as he began the long, long walk back to Fort Drift, he wondered if that were true at all. If it was so perfect a solution, why did he feel like climbing onto a little table in the garage?


FORTY FOUR

HENRY WATCHED FRANK STOW THE BOX OF MEDICINE IN THE BACK OF FORT DRIFT.

Frank was just about to shut the back doors when he stopped and looked back at him, squinting over his cigarette. “Did you want a cocktail before I close the bar, Henry?”

Henry waved away the offer. “I’m good. Thanks.”

“You sure? I swear you look like you’re at a funeral. It’s not a problem to pull something out, dear.”

Henry considered Frank’s purple face and Frankenstein stitches, and he said, “I look like I’m at a funeral? You look like the guest of honor.”

Frank slammed the van doors shut and brushed his hands off each other. “So Henry’s not drinking this afternoon?” he said as he pulled the smoke from his mouth, “My goodness, is it a holiday or what?”

“Hilarious,” Henry said without enthusiasm, “That never gets old. You’re a real hoot.”

“Why, yes I am. I’m about the funniest boy I know.”

“I totally agree with that. You are the funniest boy you know.”

“Why, Henry… I think there may be an insult lurking in that statement somewhere. Sadly, I’m going to have to ponder on it a while before I’ll know for certain.”

“I’ll stay tuned.”

“I’ll give you an update the very instant it materializes,” Frank said.

They crossed to the picnic table. Frank flicked his cigarette into the fire pit. Henry sat up on the tabletop with his feet on the bench. They both looked down at the river.

Alice, Bridget, and Ed were down at the bank. Bridget was dressing Ed’s wounds. Ed didn’t look like he cared much. He didn’t look like he was going to be caring much about anything for a while. Alice sat on a rock a few feet from them sewing on the ripped Superman tee.

“Poor Ed,” Frank said, “He sure took a beating last night. I suspect it’s going to be a couple days before he parks in Bridget’s vagina again.”

“Jesus, Frank!” Henry said, scowling at him, “You are such a bitch.”

“Yeah, I’m afraid it comes with the matronly duties of the household.”

Henry parked his elbows on his knees. The bar fight rolled over in his mind for the hundredth time that day. “Was it really just last night?” he said, “I can’t believe it. Seems so surreal now.”

“Surreal?” Frank said with a snort, “Surreal isn’t nearly the word for it. I mean, I am one scrappy Nancy, I admit it. And I’m not one for the rot of rules and roles, and I never will be. But a fistfight in gay bar redefined the world even for me.”

Henry looked at Frank’s battered face and suffered a pang of guilt. After Alice’s ‘Come to Jesus’ speech, he imagined that was what his stomach looked like.

Frank touched his stitches as if reading Henry’s mind. “Tell me the truth, Henry. Am I still as pretty as I was yesterday?”

“Frank, I’ll always think you’re a Princess.”

“Thanks, Henry.”

“It doesn’t matter how disfigured you are, it’s what’s inside that’s important. Wait a minute, scratch that. If that’s true, it means you’re good and well screwed.”

“You’re a prick.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“No,” Frank pressed, “I’m serious.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Still, I’m gonna miss you, you old lug.”

“Old lug?”

Frank pulled another cigarette from the pack as he grinned at him.

“I’ve always thought that term a little rude,” Henry said, “Old lug. Never understood why it was used that way.”

“Rude? Are you serious? I do believe it’s meant as a term of endearment.”

“Do you even know what lug means, Frank?”

Frank stuck the cigarette in his mouth and patted his cargo pants in search of matches. “Henry, dear. You’re so clueless. It’s a term of affection, of course.”

“Yeah, not so much. It means dull-witted.”

Frank grinned around the unlit cigarette. “It sure does,” he said.

“So you’re essentially saying, I’m going to miss you, you old moron.”

“Pretty much.”

“Frank, look… I just want to… I mean, I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me.”

Frank dug the matches out of his pocket and torched his cigarette. “Yeah, so you said. Over and over and over. In fact, you’ve said it so many times I’m starting to regret ever having picked you up to begin with.” He released a voluminous cloud of smoke.

“Dude,” Henry said, “You totally smoke way too much.”

“Dude,” Frank said back surfer-style, “Fer sure. Smoking’s, like, totally bitchin’. Quitting would be a mondo bummer.”

“Pulling an oxygen tank around is a mondo bummer. Being dead is a mondo bummer.”

“Henry, I see your lips moving but…” Frank clacked his fingers in the air as he took another hit. “Besides,” he said on the exhale, “It helps me keep my weight down.”

Henry looked at the man-tits erupting under his tee shirt just above the beachball that was his stomach. “In that case I think I’ll buy you a couple more cartons.”

“Sure, just as soon as you find your car.”

“Nice, one.”

“So tell me,” Frank said too seriously, “What’s up with you and Alice these days?”

Henry’s stomach twisted. “What do you mean?”

“What do you think I mean?”

“Where did that question come from, Frank?”

“Why, my heart, of course. So… seriously, what’s up?”

“So… seriously, why are you asking?”

Frank shrugged and drew a hit. He looked down at Alice and blew a series of smoke rings toward her. After a bit, he looked back at Henry. “Alice didn’t look very happy when she got back from your walk,” he said, “She already told us you were leaving, but something’s different. You had a squabble, I think.”

“What are you asking me, Frank?”

Frank shrugged. “Are you planning to follow up on this business later?”

“This business?” Henry felt a slow burn starting somewhere down in that dark place. He fought it back. He just didn’t have the energy to go back there, especially with Frank.

“You know Alice has a sense about you,” Frank said, “Right?”

“Every bloody person I meet has a sense about me.”

“Nay, not like Alice. And she likes you. A lot. Too much, I dare say.”

“Alice deserves better than me,” Henry said. She absolutely did.

“Is that right?” Frank said as he scratched the shirt stretched tautly over his belly, “Seems to me that’s Alice’s decision. Not that I necessarily disagree with you, of course. Still, who are you to say what Alice deserves or doesn’t deserve? She’s a smart girl. Why, I’d say it’s a wee bit arrogant on your part to make that decision for her, wouldn’t you agree, dear?”

Henry didn’t respond. The word arrogant was digging a hole in his gut. He looked down at Alice sitting on that rock at the river’s edge with her toes in the water. Her yellow hair flamed nearly white in the sunlight. He really didn’t want this discussion. Not now. Probably not ever. And especially not with Frank.

“I’m serious, Henry. What’re your plans? You planning to follow up or just disappear into the traffic like a magician running from the rabbit?”

Henry looked at him. “Frank?”

“Yes, Henry?”

“Mind your own fucking business.”

Frank stuck the cigarette in his mouth and started clapping. Slowly. “Well put, Henry. Brilliant response. Concise, tight, well delivered. You’re a regular orator.”

“Seriously. Piss off, Frank.”

“Gee, and I was just getting to like you, too.” Frank took a deep draw. His eyes targeted Henry.

Henry pulled away from him. He turned back toward Alice, and he felt a warm rush. She held his shirt up before her, inspecting the stitching. The Superman emblem looked particularly impressive in the sunlight. He liked it better with the stitching through it.

A moment later, Frank flicked his butt into the fire pit to join the fifty others heaped there. Henry watched it smoldering and wondered why the pile never caught fire.

“Henry, you told me you weren’t here for a drive-by,” Frank said, looking hard at him, “I think your exact words were ‘I’m not interested in courting Alice and I don’t want to bed her’.”

“Damn, Frank!”

Frank didn’t break his gaze. “Well, it seems at least half of what you told me was true, then, hm? So I guess you’re only half a liar.”

Henry felt the hot promise of anger swell. “Be careful, Frank. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I? You bedded her last night, didn’t you? And today you’re heading out with no plans to keep in touch?” He frowned and shrugged. “Gee… help me out, here. What part did I get wrong?”

“I told you, Frank. I’m not interested in going through the good brother, bad boyfriend routine. I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet. I’m just… I’ve got to… I don’t know. Doesn’t matter, it’s none of your business anyway.”

Frank watched him a moment. Then he said, “You’ve got what?”

“Issues, Frank. Okay? Baggage!”

Frank threw out a sarcastic laugh. “Are you kidding me? Every bad man on earth uses that line. Believe me, I know. Been there, done that, darling. And yet, I expected you to do a wee bit better than that.”

“Alice doesn’t need my problems, Frank. I’m doing her a favor.”

“You know her that well, do you? In two days, you’ve gleaned such a deep insight that you can make so bold and prophetic a statement? Lord above, what arrogance.”

The words pushed Henry too hard this time. A low buzz started up in his ears. Still, he steadied his breathing. Don’t let him push your buttons.

“Well, that’s it right there, isn’t it?” he said as carefully as he could manage, “It’s been two days. Two. Days. And now I owe her what? An engagement ring? Seriously?” His stomach was on fire.

“Nah, you’re right, Henry. She’ll better off if you just get the hell out of her life.”

Henry glared at him. “You know what, Frank? Those were practically her very words. Why the hell do you think she came back so pissy? She told me she didn’t want me in her life. So, you see? I’m doing exactly as instructed. Alice is a hell of a lot smarter than you.”

Franks’ face tightened at that. “I guess that means my first assessment of you was spot on, doesn’t it? Turns out you were here for a drive-by after all.”

Henry’s anger broke his restraints. He felt himself fly up out of his body. He saw himself rush to his feet. He watched himself push Frank violently backward. He watched himself shoving Frank back again and again. And when a tree stopped Frank from going any further, Henry pinned him hard against it.

“Shut up, Frank!” he said into his face, “You just shut the hell up! You don’t know squat about me. You don’t know what happened between me and Alice, and you never will. You don’t know how hard it is for me. How hard it is for me to… for me to…”

Frank put his hands on Henry’s arm and carefully eased him back a step.

Henry surprised himself by yielding. He stood there for a moment, heart kicking, breath ragged. He dragged a hand across his mouth and looked down at the nearly white dirt strewn with brown pine needles, at the thick black ants weaving their way through the debris with such obvious intent. For all their determination, he couldn’t see where they were accomplishing a thing.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he watched the ants, “It’s complicated.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Frank said. He didn’t sound like he meant it.

Henry dragged the hair back from his face. “We didn’t just… you know, have sex,” he said carefully, “You need to get that out of your head. It was different than that.”

“You have a different name for it in Riverside?”

Henry finally looked up at him. “I do,” he said carefully, “I call it something very different. It’s not something I can explain, especially not to you. It was between Alice and me, and it was very personal. But it wasn’t a screw, and if you ever call it that again, I swear I’ll…”

Frank just watched him.

Henry looked over to the gold hair glimmering in the sunlight down by the riverbank. “She’s… quite something. Your sister. In another world I’d never let her out of my sight again.”

“But in this world?”

He looked back at Frank. “In this world? In this world, leaving Alice behind may be the most noble and selfless thing I’ve ever done.”

“Oh, don’t go getting all Philosopher King on me, Henry. Does that even mean anything? Or is it just some kind of corndog crap you read in a bathroom somewhere?”

“There’s a monster inside me, Frank! There’s been a monster in me for a long, long time, and I’ve let it control everything I’ve done. But now I need to kill it. Alice helped me see that, that and the fact that I’m no good to anyone until I do.”

Henry again thought about Beth, about time and space and mind. He thought about regrets. He thought about the folly of measuring the present by the elastic yardstick of the past.

For several moments they just stood there in silence. Then Frank said softly, “I understand.”

Henry looked at him.

“I understand,” Frank said again, “I mean, I get it, I really do. I’m just not happy about it.”

“No, Frank,” he said softly, “You don’t get it. But you do see the truth in me, don’t you? I’m going to kill this thing inside me. And when I do, Alice will be the first stop on my victory tour. And if I can’t kill it? Well… it’ll kill me, I expect. And in that case she’s better off without me.”

Frank lunged forward and pulled Henry into a huge hug. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered into his ear, “I thought there was something more to it, but I had to be sure.”

“Frank, are you crying?”

Frank hugged him tighter, squeezing him, and sobbing gently into his shoulder. “Promise me,” he said, “Promise me you’ll call her one way or another. That’s all I ask. Promise me that, dear. Promise you won’t make her wait for nothing.”

Henry felt a surge of irritation. He wanted to push the fat man away, to turn around and tear his way down that two-track and back into obscurity. But then the truth barged its way into his anger, and he realized he wasn’t irritated at Frank at all. He was just afraid, and that simple revelation melted his anger like water on a witch.

So instead of resisting, he put his arms around Frank and reciprocated the hug. And as he stood there comforting him, he realized that holding a sobbing fat man in his arms could never feel so normal anywhere else in his universe.


FORTY FIVE

“HENRY?”

Henry handed the last of the tent poles through the van door to Frank, then brushed his hands and turned around.

Alice strolled toward him with the Superman shirt held up in the air like she was hawking it at a ballgame. He steadied himself for the worst, but all she threw at him was her smile. Her demeanor was the precise opposite of what he’d expected. In fact, she seemed downright happy. If he hadn’t been back there on the trail to witness it himself he’d never have guessed anything had happened between them.

“I finished your uniform, Superman.” She hung it open and shimmied it back and forth enticingly.

The stitching put a slightly jagged crease diagonally through the S, leaving it with the edge where the two halves met just a hair off line. The black, heavy thread made the seam look like a stitched wound. It clearly was not an accident, and it actually made it cooler than before. “Wow,” he said, “Nice work. It’s excellent.”

She pressed the shirt against him like she was measuring it for size. “Henry approves?”

“Henry approves. Thank you.”

She tipped up and gave him a perky kiss. “Can’t have a superhero running around in a compromised uniform.”

“No?” He was confused. What was she doing?

“Absolutely no. The evil doers will think he’s a weak-kneed girly-man. Haven’t you ever read a comic book?”

“Henry,” Frank called from the van, “Throw me that bag of stakes.”

Henry took the stakes from the picnic table and tossed them over.

“Thank you, dear,” Frank said, “Now, ready the troops. This wagon train’s moving out in fifteen.”

“Aye, Captain,” Henry said with a one finger salute.

“That’s insubordination, soldier,” Frank said, “Me likey.” He was giggling as he disappeared into the van.

“Lift your arms, Henry,” Alice said from behind him.

Henry turned toward her, but she stopped his motion and twisted him back toward the van. “Alice?” he said over his shoulder, “What are you doing?”

“I’m helping you with your uniform, nitwit. So be a good boy and hold your arms up already.”

Henry couldn’t see her face, but he sure as hell felt The Look. After their conversation on the trail, he wasn’t sure what to make of this. He opted to do exactly as he was told and to do it as if he liked it. Alice climbed up onto the bench of the table behind him, slipped the shirt over his arms and pulled it down into place.

“There.” She jumped down to the dirt. “Now turn around so I can inspect.”

He did.

She smoothed out the wrinkles, straightened the shoulders, and pulled the short sleeves down into place. He watched her fussing with the emblem. Her face was focused and all business. It was the first time he’d seen her use her laser vision on anything but him.

“You’re quite particular about your tee shirts,” he said to her.

She glanced up at him, but immediately returned to her work. “You say that like it’s a revelation to you. It shouldn’t be.”

“It’s not. Not with anything sewing related.”

She threw him a glare at that.

“I mean, with fashion designing,” he said quickly, “I’m just surprised to see such focus, that’s all.”

She stood back with her fists on her hips. “Surprised?” she said way too seriously, “And why would that be, Mr. Smith?”

Henry resisted the urge to cower.

“It’s my work, Henry. It’s what I do. I take it seriously.”

“I understand.” He couldn’t have understood less. It was a damned tee shirt.

She continued looking up at him like maybe he’d forgotten to avert his eyes or curtsy or add a ‘Your Worship’.

“Is there something you want to say?” she said without breaking eye contact.

“Well,” he said carefully, “I mean, it is a tee shirt, after all.” Judging by the change in her expression, it wasn’t careful enough.

“Is it?”

He looked down at the emblem, then back at her. “I thought so,” he said tentatively, “But now I’m thinking probably not so much.”

She grabbed his chin and pulled him closer to her. “It’s a symbol, Henry.”

“A symbol?”

“Yes.”

“A symbol of…?”

She flashed him a looked just laced with disappointment. “You shouldn’t have to ask,” she said humorlessly.

Henry was good and truly stumped. For about three seconds. Then he got it, and it was suddenly clearer than he wanted it to be.

She moved closer and placed her hand flat against his emblem. “Henry?” she said too gently.

“Alice?”

“I hope someday you’ll figure it out. I sincerely do.”

He thought about her lecture back on the trail and felt a surge of disgust at himself. “Pretty certain I just did,” he whispered.

She slapped the emblem. “Not just this, Henry,” she whispered up to him, “The whole dilemma.”

“Henry!” Frank called from the van, “You’ve got something on your back.” He cackled at that.

“What?” Henry said, looking back at him.

“He does not!” Alice yelled back.

Henry craned his head back over his shoulder but couldn’t see anything behind him. Alice twisted him around and brushed his back. “There’s nothing,” she said, “It’s fine. Pay no attention to the queen behind the curtain.”

“No,” Frank said, still laughing, “It’s right there.”

Alice charged the van and shoved Frank hard enough to send him flailing back into the sleeping bags. Then she slammed the door on him. “Piss off, Frank!”

Henry watched the scene and once again marveled at the weirdness of this family.


FORTY SIX

HENRY WATCHED THE ROCKS SAILING ALONG THE ROADSIDE.

The interstate was coming up too fast, and he was perfectly dreading it. Fort Drift was soon going to come to a stop. The side door will slide open. Alice will peel away from him for the last time. And then he was going to be standing in the hot gravel watching the van fade into the heat waves, and it was going to feel like being thrown from a bus.

You can’t refill a clock, Henry. Beth’s voice. It flamed through his head like a prairie fire.

He immediately reeled his mind back to the moment. He looked down at Alice sitting on his lap with her back to the door. Her arms were around his shoulders, her head nuzzled against his neck. She snored ever so softly.

You can’t refill a clock.

Another sign flew past. Sanders 24.

Twenty-four miles to the interstate. The countdown begins.

“Almost there, Henry,” Frank said. He wasn’t smiling.

Henry felt himself sinking into the seat. Were these people mind readers or what? He laid his face on Alice’s head and smelled the warm comfort of her scalp, and looked out at the passing scrub.

“Did you hear me, dear?”

“Yeah,” he said, glancing over at Frank, “I saw it.”

“My, Henry doesn’t sound very happy.”

“Piss off, Frank.”

A lighter clicked a couple times. A cloud of cigarette smoke wafted past and ejected itself through his half-open window.

Alice stirred, and then she sat up. “Are we there yet?” she said, yawning.

“Close, my love,” Frank said, “Another twenty-five miles or thereabouts.”

Alice reached over and took Frank’s cigarette. She leaned back against Henry and dragged a hit from it. Then she turned toward the window and sent the smoke on its merry way.

As she passed it back to Frank, Henry asked her, “Why do you do that?”

Alice leaned her head against his cheek. “Do what?”

“Smoke Frank’s cigarettes? I’ve only seen you smoke one of your own.”

“She smoked one of her own?” Frank said, “When was that? That’s news I need to give to Hello Kitty.”

“The night you rescued me,” Henry said, “She was smoking one when she opened the hatch.”

“Hate to deconstruct your theory. But that was one of mine, too.”

“So, why is that, Alice?” Henry said, “Why don’t you ever smoke your own?”

“Well, I’d think that’d be obvious to a man of your academic achievement,” she said without looking at him, “I don’t smoke.”

“I see.” He didn’t.

“What she means,” Frank said, “Is that she doesn’t buy them.”

Henry looked down at the blonde head bedded against his neck. “Note to self,” he said, “Alice is a mooch.”

Frank laughed. Alice punched Henry. Then she settled back into him again. “You’re both going to hell.”

“Going?” Henry said, “Hilarious.”

“You two just be quiet now. I’m trying to get some sleep. I’m tired.”

“Whatever is the matter, dear sister,” Frank said, looking over at them, “Did you have troubled sleep last night?”

Alice didn’t respond, but Henry wanted to slap him stupid. Instead, he settled for, “Frank, you’re a real dick.”

Frank grinned around his cigarette. “Yeah,” he said, “I know.”

“So be a good girl and shut the hell up for the last few miles, okay?”

Frank flashed him a perfect idiot’s grin. “Okay,” he said.

They drove on in silence for a bit. The scrub, rocks, and crapped out mobile homes squatting on lots suffocating in dirt raced past. Henry wondered what on earth could be so bad that it would drive someone to banish themselves to a hell-hole like this. Even with his demons, he stayed in the relative comfort of the city. This place was mortifying.

Alice stirred again. This time she sat up, leaned deeply into him, and pressed her lips against his ear. “I’m going to miss you,” she whispered.

Her breath gave him a chill. He heard Beth’s voice again whispering in the back of his mind. There’s no past, no future, only now, and he suddenly understood. That was where Alice lived. He remembered what she’d said to him on the trail: You’re always never home. He wondered if he ever would be home. If he ever could be.

“I’m going to miss you, too,” he whispered back. He would, and the awareness of it terrified him.

“Maybe we’ll see each other again someday,” she said softly.

He knew it wasn’t a ploy or a request, or even a hint. It was just a simple truth. He had nothing to give back.

“I wish you’d reconsider our offer,” she said.

“Please don’t ask me that.”

“I don’t see what difference it’ll make. I’m worried sick for you, don’t you see?”

“It’s better this way.”

“For you.”

“Yes, Alice. It’s better for me.”

“Why, Henry? We don’t mind at all. Land sakes, we want to do it.”

“No,” Henry said carefully, “I fell into the black hole on my own. I need to climb back out on my own. Please try to understand.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Riverside is eight hours out of your way. No, wait. In a round trip, it’s sixteen. I won’t have it.”

“What if we kidnap you?” She giggled. “What are you going to do then, Superman? Throw yourself from the van?”

“If necessary.”

“Jerk.”

He squeezed her tighter.

“Well, I’m not going to fight you anymore,” she said, “But you should know it displeases me. It displeases me very much.”

He took her chin and eased her face up toward him. He looked into those perfect green eyes. “Alice, try to understand,” he whispered, “I started this Epic Outing on my own, and I need to finish it the same way. You’ve helped me see things… I don’t know, differently. I guess.” He thought about it a moment, then shrugged. “You know what I mean.”

 She watched him closely. He wasn’t sure she got it at all, and she was throwing him no bones.

“I need to end it the way it started,” he continued, “I have a feeling it’s part of the plan, like the gods have a design for me. I know it sounds lame, but I think I’m starting to see things differently. I’m worried that if I take any shortcuts, it’s all going to end in failure.”

She kissed him gently on the lips, then settled back into his neck. “You know I’m used to getting my way,” she whispered, “But I guess I’ll just have to back off on this one. I know when I’m outgunned.”


FORTY SEVEN

HENRY’S STOMACH WAS KILLING HIM.

The van rolled very slowly along the shoulder. The sound of the gravel crackling beneath the barely moving tires felt too physical, too ominous. His tension built with every snap, crackle, and pop. It was like being at the dead-end of a drunk, when the stew is bubbling in your gut, and the outcome is inevitable.

“Damn it, Frank!” he snapped, “Stop the van already!”

“Sorry,” Frank said too softly.

Henry didn’t know where the words came from. He couldn’t remember pushing them out. His heart thumped his ribs like someone beating the cement with a wet mop.

Alice held him as completely as if they were lashed together.

He looked over at Frank. “I’m sorry, Frank,” he said, “I don’t know where that came from.”

“It’s all right,” Frank said, “We’re all feeling the same way.”

“There’s no need to lie,” Henry said sharply, “I’m not an idiot. It’s been two days. It’s not like we’re—”

He froze mid-sentence. What the hell was he doing? Be a man. Think about someone else’s needs for once in your pathetic life.

“Sorry,” he said, “Again. I didn’t mean that. It’s just my usual…”

Frank made an odd noise, then turned to look out the driver’s window.

Alice pulled up on the door handle. The sound of the latch’s clack felt like a kick in the gut. Then she spilled out of the van and into the heat, and she was gone.

Henry couldn’t take his eyes from the open door. It looked like the gaping hatch to a skydiving plane, beyond which was nothing but emptiness. It didn’t bode well. He wasn’t packing a chute.

He felt Frank’s hand on his arm. It took him a moment, but he willed himself to look back at him.

Frank’s eyes were red and miserable. Despite the blonde hair and black roots, despite the Sinbad the Sailor earrings and the mascara, despite the halfhearted beard and the man-tits, he looked as sad as a little girl.

“It’s all right, Frank,” he said softly, “It’s been fun.”

Frank began to say something, but instead smothered it with his hand.

Henry squeezed Frank’s forearm. “Thank you,” he said with too much effort, “You’ve been a friend. I mean it. And I don’t have many, so I take saying that pretty seriously.”

“You son of a bitch,” Frank said between chokes, “I don’t know why I’m so worked up. You’re right, it’s only been two stinking days, for Christ’s sake.”

“I know.”

“I think sometimes people meet because they’re supposed to,” Frank said, wiping his cheek, “I think sometimes the process of friendship is accelerated because it’s the natural turn of events. Sometimes people who should be natural enemies meet up, but something in the equation lets them defy the odds.”

“I suppose. I never believed that bull before, but I’m sure beginning to.”

“I just hate to see you go.”

“I know, but there’s no way around it. I have work to do, you know?”

“I’m glad we met, Henry.”

“Me, too, Frank.”

Frank abruptly lurched forward and hauled Henry into a breathtaking hug. Much to his surprise, Henry again found himself hugging back.

Frank pressed his cheek tightly into Henry’s. “Remember,” he whispered to him, “Remember what we talked about. Let her know one way or the other, okay?”

“I will, Frank.”

“Please, Henry. Promise it to me. Don’t let her drift. If she’s not going to see you again, you need to tell her. Okay? Don’t leave her hanging and wondering.”

“I will. I promise.”

They released. Henry pulled back into his seat. Frank looked back at him with wet eyes. As they choked on the silence, Henry realized he couldn’t fulfill his promise. He had no contact information.

“Wait,” he said, “I don’t know how to reach her.”

Frank threw a strange smile at that. “Don’t worry about it, Henry. You’ll find a way.”

Henry didn’t know what to make of that. Why was Frank blowing him off? “I know her shop’s some place in Colorado, right? Castle Bend, something like that? I could look it—”

“Castle Rock,” Frank said, laughing, “But that doesn’t matter. Just have faith in what I’m telling you, okay? When the time comes, you will absolutely know how to contact her.”

“Are you serious?”

“My dear Henry, I don’t think I’ve ever been more serious in my life. I know trust isn’t your strong suit, but I’m asking you to break that stupid tradition just this once. Okay? Just this one time.”

Henry looked at him. He did believe him, and the revelation was just one more in a series of mind-altering surprises provided by this Epic Outing.

“Okay, Frank. I will. I do.”

Frank threw his hand out and Henry gladly accepted it. “See you on the dark side, Henry.”

“You will, indeed.”

Henry looked back into the van’s cave and waved. “Bridget, Ed, see you around, yeah?”

Bridget waved and smiled, though there wasn’t much enthusiasm in it. Ed grunted something indecipherable, but Henry didn’t have the heart to press him on it.


FORTY EIGHT

HENRY STEADIED HIMSELF AGAINST THE VAN WALL AS HE WORKED HIS WAY TOWARD THE REAR.

His palms were covered in sweat. Again. He felt a little nauseous. Again. What the hell was happening to him? When in the course of forty-eight hours had he assimilated so completely into this tribe? Maybe it was fate. Maybe chance. Maybe just bad fucking luck.

In the end, he knew it didn’t matter either way. The fact was that he was gorged on a lifetime of regrets already. He couldn’t bear to swallow another bite.

He turned the rear corner of the van with all the fear of God in his heart. He didn’t know if he was man enough to face what was coming, but he sure as hell wasn’t man enough not to.

Alice sat on the rear bumper with her hands folded between her knees. She wore a perfect white sundress that left her looking celestial in that metallic sunlight. She had his refurbished dress shirt draped across her lap. She looked up at him and proffered a half-hearted smile. It kicked the scaffolding out from under him.

“Hi,” Alice said to him.

“Hi,” he said back.

She didn’t get up, but she didn’t look away. She seemed at once both the child and the parent. “I brought your shirt,” she said, “I know you’re not crazy about it, but I thought you’d want it as a keepsake. Something to remember me by.”

Time came to a screeching stop. He stood a few feet out in front of her with his hands locked in his pockets. The air seemed to solidify around them. They didn’t say anything, but only watched each other’s eyes.

 Once the pressure grew too big to contain, he whispered, “Alice?”

“Henry?”

“I don’t want to leave with you mad at me.”

“I’m not mad at you.”

“No?”

“Why would I be mad at you?”

“After our talk back on the trail today. I thought…”

He stalled on the words. She watched him in silent waiting, staring up at him with her lasers revved at full acceleration.

“Well…” he pressed, “I guess I thought…” The words failed him. Finally, he just shrugged.

Alice cocked her head at him. “I know you’re not waiting for me to bail you out, Henry.”

Time to grow a pair, Henry. “I acted like a dick,” he said straight out, “You’re right about me. I totally see it now.”

She watched him, but didn’t speak.

“Anyway,” he continued, “I’m going to make a couple calls when I get home. I know I’ll never lose the monster, but I’d sure like to leash it.”

“It’s not a monster, Henry. It’s just a very scary past. You can beat it, You’re stronger than you want to admit.”

“Thanks.” There was nothing else to say.

He counted the hammer blows against his ribs. They reverberated in his ears like the midnight countdown of a clock chiming twelve. Twelve chimes and the old day was over. Twelve chimes, and he’d be thrown back into a new day. Twelve chimes, and he’d be standing at another crossroads. Twelve chimes, and he’d be absolutely alone.

Alice stood up and took his hands. She looked at his disfigured Superman emblem. She studied it like a secret relic rested behind it, and all she had to do to get it was figure out the code.

“Alice, I—”

“Feels, weird, yeah?” she said without looking at him.

“Yes.” Weird was a gross understatement.

She giggled, but still didn’t look at him.

“What are you laughing at?” he heard himself ask.

“At us, what else?”

Henry studied her but, as usual, couldn’t get a bead. “What’s so funny about us, Alice? It actually feels kind of bad. To me, anyway.”

She offered him a gentle shrug. “Land sakes, the year just flew by, didn’t it? I mean, where did the time go?”

He grinned at that. “Yeah, but it was a pretty damned good year, wasn’t it?”

“Sure, just too short, that’s all.”

“Most people are lucky to get a good weekend,” he said gently, “We got a whole year. What do we have to complain about?”

She gave him a queer look. Then she seemed to withdraw a bit. She sent her eyes out into the surrounding rockscape.

What the hell was he doing? He stood before this beautiful woman, who was clearly grieving his passing, and all he could do was wax phony philosophical? Get all Dr. Phil on her? He suffered a slice of shame that he was pretty sure was going to leave a mark.

He moved closer and pulled her into him, because he knew he should. He hugged her like he was never letting go, because he wanted to.

She wrapped her arms around him and held him just as tight. After a moment, she slipped her chin up onto the seam in his emblem and targeted him with those kryptonite eyes. She smiled that lethal smile, the one that breached every weakness in him, the one that left him as vulnerable as a mere mortal.

Then she rubbed a hand across his emblem and said, “I just adore a man in uniform.”

“Is that right?”

She placed her cheek against the seam in his shirt. “Can I tell you the truth?” she whispered.

“After the past two days, I sure as hell hope so.”

“It’s not just the uniforms. I’m a sucker for superheroes. Especially the troubled ones.”

“Well, it’s a good day to be me, then. Isn’t it?” He wished it were.

She didn’t say anything.

He ran his fingers across her face as he studied it. He smelled her hair and her skin. He felt the contour of her back. He drank deeply of her glorious eyes. He committed every detail of her to memory.

“Alice?” he heard him say.

“Henry?”

He watched her for a moment. He didn’t want to let go. “Meeting you…”

“Yes, Henry?”

“Meeting you was…”

She smiled and shrugged her brow. “Yes, Henry?”

He licked a dry tongue over drier lips. “I think you’ve helped me.”

“You think so?”

“Yes.”

“Let me know when you’re certain.”

His breath failed him. It took all his strength to say, “I will.”

“Let’s not draw this out, dear. I’m not good with long goodbyes.”

“Me, either. In fact, I usually avoid goodbyes altogether.”

She laughed at that. “Just sneak off into the night in full stealth mode? Maybe take to the skies and just fly away?”

“Mostly I just avoid situations that end with goodbye.”

She stroked his cheek. “I guess you really screwed up this time, then, yeah?”

Her eyes completely filled his vision. He couldn’t think. He brushed the blonde strands back from her face. It felt like silk.

“You’re not leaving any burning wreckage this time,” she whispered.

He felt a cold breeze slither past.

“I think you’re the one burning this time, Henry.”

His stomach wrenched so hard it nearly took him down. She was right. She was so damned right. He wanted to tell her that, wanted to explain to her that she’d filled a hole he didn’t even know he had, that leaving her behind felt like someone ripping his guts out. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He could only look at her and freeze-frame her face in his mind, and pray hard that the image never faded.

“Let’s get on with it,” she said.

The sadness in her voice, in her eyes, was heaviest load he’d ever had to lift. Looking down at her looking up at him was killing him. He couldn’t let her go. He couldn’t will his arms away. He couldn’t find his voice. For the first time in four years, he had absolutely no control.

“Let’s just not say anything else,” she whispered, “Okay? Let’s just end it with us.”

It took every bit of will he could summon to simply nod.

And then Alice slipped her hands up around his neck, and she tipped up on her toes, and she kissed him deeply.


FORTY NINE

HENRY SAT ON THAT GUARDRAIL WITH HIS THUMB HANGING INDIFFERENTLY OFF HIS KNEE.

Day was easing into evening with all the enthusiasm of garbage scow. He had absolutely no interest in this return trip. He could sit there baking in that broiling western sun for the rest of eternity for all he cared. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt this alone, this hollow and incomplete. It wasn’t his shining moment, not by a long stretch.

He thought back over the year he and Alice dated. He’d run the full course of emotions. He’d laughed more than he had in years. He’d made friends, something he’d pretty much thought himself incapable of anymore. So why did he feel so miserably incomplete? Shouldn’t he feel at least a bit satisfied? Shouldn’t he feel the slightest hint of accomplishment? Shouldn’t he feel something bigger than lost?

An old, beat up green Rambler came chugging down the on-ramp. Henry lifted his thumb a little higher, because he probably ought to. The driver leaned toward the open passenger window and flipped him off as he passed. The dude was grinning like it was the funniest thing he’d ever done.

It was exactly not what Henry needed in that moment. A rush of anger seized him. He jumped to his feet and yelled, “Asshole!”

The brake lights flamed. The car screeched to a stop. The reverse lights came on. The car came reeling back.

“Bring it on, you prick,” Henry said. It was absolutely the wrong time to be screwing with him. There’s nothing more dangerous than a man who doesn’t care.

The car slid to a stop beside him. The driver again leaned into the passenger seat and glared up through the open window at him. “You talking to me, bra?”

Henry threw his hands down on the door. “After your friendly little wave, I felt obligated, bra!”

The guy was straight out of a bad cop show. Hugely obese, shoulder-length thin blonde hair, thick stripe of yellow flavor-saver on his chin, too many tats, too many chains. If he’d had darker skin, he’d have looked Samoan. To top it all off, he was wearing another bloody wifebeater!

“Wave?” the man said, “What the hell you talking about, bra?”

Henry showed him.

“Oh,” the fat man said, laughing, “Did that hurt your feelings, man? You delicate that way?”

“No, it was the smile attached to it that hurt my feelings.”

“What’s the matter, sweetheart? Y’all having a bad day?”

Henry bared his teeth at him. “You have no idea, pal. But I’d be glad to show you. Just pull over and get your fat ass out of the car.”

“Oh, do I see a sad story coming on?” the dude said with a pout, “Hold on, let me grab some tissues.”

“Go to hell.”

“Go to hell? You’re telling me to go to hell?”

“Yeah, go to hell. I have no patience for rude behavior.”

“Rude?” the man said like he honestly couldn’t believe it, “Y’all calling me rude?”

“You flipped off a stranger, what the hell would you call it?”

The man grinned, exposing a pair of bucked golden teeth. “I call it funny, bra.”

“Funny?” Henry said, “What the hell’s funny about flipping off a stranger.”

“I don’t know,” the fat man said, grinning wider, “But the look on your face was primo.”

“You have one cheap sense of humor, pal.”

“Is that right?”

“That is exactly right, asshole. Tell me something, how many Sharpies do you have on you?”

“What?”

“You like to write stupid shit on rest area maps?”

“What the hell you talking about?”

“I’m talking about standards of decent behavior, bra.”

“Standards?”

“Never mind, it’s a stupid question. Anyone over eighteen driving a ratty ass piece of shit Rambler like this obviously doesn’t put much stock in standards.”

The man’s wide face twisted into a scowl. “Hey, don’t you be dissing on my car, man. This is a sixty-nine classic. There ain’t many around nomore.”

Henry laughed. “Are you serious? It’s a piece of shit. Look at the side, it’s all scratched to hell. Shit, your fender’s a good kick away from a rust pile.”

“Yeah, but look at the interior, bra. It’s all original. I just gotta work it up and—”

A car leaned onto its horn behind them.

Henry and the fat man turned in tandem, yelling, “Piss off!”

The woman behind the wheel flipped them both off, then careened around the Rambler.

Henry looked back at the guy. “Asshole! Everyone’s in a hurry these days!”

They both laughed.

Then the guy leaned over and yanked the passenger door handle. “Well, you best get your ass in, then, bra. We’ll talk about this on the way. Besides, y’all won’t never get a ride on this redneck on-ramp.”


FIFTY

HENRY HAD TO ADMIT THE DUDE WAS RIGHT.

The inside of the Rambler really was in damned good shape. Still, he absolutely could not fathom why anyone would ever want to own one. It was a boxy piece of crap with bench seats and no shoulder harnesses. The seatbelts looked like something off an airplane. They didn’t even retract.

“Where you heading, bra?”

Henry looked at the driver. He was so big he took up half the bench seat. He made Josho look anorexic.

“West,” Henry said, looking out into the passing misery, “Due west.”

“West,” the guy repeated.

“That’s what I said.”

“Not north?” The fat man laughed.

Henry looked at him again. They guy had like twenty earrings spiked around the perimeter of his ear, and a plug in his lobe that had to be an inch wide.

“North?” Henry said, “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

The big man flashed him a grin. His bottom center teeth were missing. Henry hadn’t noticed that earlier, probably because they were hidden beneath the golden bucks up on top.

“Yeah, you know… north,” the man said, “Like back to your Fortress of Solitude, bra.” He laughed harder than the humor merited.

Henry studied him a moment. “So, what’s with the bra shit?”

The fat man looked over at him like he’d just asked if the sky was orange. “I’m a surfer, dude.”

Henry looked him up and down. “A surfer?” he repeated. He’d need a surfboard the size of a barge. “You ever even touch a surfboard before?”

“Totally, man. Surfing since I was like eighteen.”

“Eighteen.”

“Totally!”

“How old are you now?”

“Twenty-nine, man.” He pounded out a beat on the steering wheel, then added, “Twenty-nine and coo-king.”

“All right, Chewbacca,” Henry said in resignation, “Whatever. You’re a surfer.”

“Where you think I’m heading right now, man?”

“To surf?”

“Yeah, man. Totally!”

“You know you’re in New Mexico,” Henry said, “Right? It’s a desert with borders? A land locked state?”

“I’m right here in New Mexico at this very most moment, bra. But I won’t be in the same New Mexico in the very next moment, you feel me? Static versus dynamite, man.”

“I think you mean dynamic.”

“Totally, bra.”

Henry just looked at him.

“Name’s Tyrone,” the guy said, extending a hand.

Henry looked at the proffered hand. It had the letters T-I-T-S tattooed across the knuckles of his first four fingers. It was all he could do not to laugh as he shook it. “Tyrone,” he said as seriously as he could manage, “Perfect.”

“Yeah, Tyrone, man. But you don’t got to call me that.”

“No?” Henry said.

“No way, man. Y’all can call me Roger.”

“Roger? How the fuck do you get ‘Roger’ from ‘Tyrone’?”

The guy gave him a queer look. “What you talking about, man?”

Henry was about to press the question when he decided he didn’t actually give a damn He settled for, “Okey dokey, then.”

“So, what’s your name, man?” Roger asked him.

“Superman,” Henry said, “But you can call me Clark.”

“Superman,” Roger said, giggling, “Got me a real-to-life superhero in the Rambler. Ain’t nothing gonna slow us down now, bra.”

“I sure as hell hope not,” Henry whispered.

Roger punched the cigarette lighter into the dash and pulled the ashtray open in nearly the same motion. He slipped a half-burned joint from among the butts and held it up between sausage fingers wrapped in thick gold rings a size too tight. “You light up?” he said.

Henry looked at it. Great. He hoped Roger wasn’t one of those guys that got all chatty when he was stoned. He waved it off, saying, “No, thanks.” It was about the last thing he needed.

Roger parked the roach in his pudgy lips, pulled the lighter out of the dash, and lit it. He drew a long hit, then offered it to Henry anyway. “Man,” he said, fighting not to release any smoke, “You seriously got to try this shit. My friend grows it? Called Platinum, man.”

Henry looked at the proffered joint. “Platinum what?”

Roger studied him with the wisps of smoke trickling from his pudgy, pink mouth. “Huh?” he grunted.

“Platinum what?” Henry repeated.

Roger exhaled with a small cough. The smoke flooded the car. “Platinum what?” he said hoarsely, “What the hell, Platinum what?”

“You can’t just call it platinum,” Henry said, “There’s already a metal by that name. Platinum should be like an adjective. Like Platinum Joy or Platinum Blast or something.”

Henry looked down for the window button, but found nothing. Then he noticed the silver crank on the door. He took it and carefully rolled down the window

“Adjective,” Roger said, looking at him.

“Yeah, it’s a descriptor. It modifies a noun.”

“I know what a fucking adjective is, man. I got my GED.”

Henry suffered a moment’s pang of angst for having automatically assumed otherwise.

“Clark, you are one uptight mother!” Roger took another huge hit.

That tickled Henry’s irritation. “Yeah? You can tell that after fifteen minutes in the car with me?”

“Oh hell, yeah.”

“Let me guess. You’ve got a sense about people, right?”

Roger scowled at him with his lips puckered tight around the joint. “What?”

“You’ve got a sense about people? You can tell things about them just by talking to them?”

“You’re not even smoking, bra. What is up with you?”

“Nothing.”

Henry looked out the window. Did this landscape ever change? This was so wrong. Alice’s observation back at the van had been a direct bullseye; he was totally the one burning this time. 

They drove along in a few minutes of silence as Roger finished off the joint. Henry wondered how the dude could suck that whole thing down and still keep on the road. Then again, they were going fifty in a seventy zone.

Finally, Roger cranked down his window, and pitched the roach. “That is some tasty ass weed, man.”

“Glad you’re happy, Roger,” Henry said sarcastically.

“Call me T, bra.”

Henry looked at him. “What?”

“T, man. Call me T. That’s my label, bra. I’m the T-man, see?”

“T? How the hell do you get T from…”

Roger was watching him too intensely.

Henry shook his head and looked out at the passing rocks. “Never mind.”

Dusk was coming on fast. It wasn’t particularly encouraging considering the company.

 “Clark, man. You know how to drive a car, bra?”

Henry rolled his head toward him. “How in the hell could I not know how to drive a car?”

T shrugged and laughed. “Got me a gramma don’t know how. It’s the Twenty-Fifth Century, man. Anything’s happening now days, even shit that don’t never happen otherwise.”

“Twenty-Fifth century?”

“Yeah, man. I mean, give or take. Y’all gotta open your mind up about that shit.”

Henry looked out the passenger window, thinking just shoot me now.

“You’re too uptight, man.”

“Too uptight?” Henry said, “Are you serious? Doesn’t the fact that it’s the twenty-fifth century lend itself more to the possibility of everyone knowing how to drive rather than the possibility that more people wouldn’t?”

“Y’all gotta drive us across the Arizona line.”

Henry looked at him.

T grinned back at him like he’d just been caught peeing in the pool. “Serious as a period, man. You got to drive us in.”

“Why?”

“I can’t do it, bra.”

“Why can’t you drive across the state line?” This didn’t sound good.

“Can I trust you, man? You a cowboy? You stand up when your homies gots prob?”

“I didn’t know cowboys had homies,” Henry said.

“Y’all know what I mean,” T said, looking over at him, “Can I trust you?”

Henry’s defenses went up. This was getting weirder by the minute, if that was possible. “Can you trust me?” he said to T, “You just met me. What do you think?”

T just stared at him for a moment. Then he grinned and nodded, and he said, “Yeah, I think I trust you. I totally saw the code, bra.”

“The code?”

“Yeah, Clarkman, the code.” T hiked a thumb at him. “Your code, bra. Back there. It’s all over you, man. You’re like that Keanu Riverez dude.”

“Who?”

“You know, that Matrix dude. You got the code pouring down your back just like him.”

Henry looked down at his emblem. Maybe he meant the stitching through the S. Hell, maybe he just meant the S. He made an executive decision not to press it.

T pressed it for him. “Behind you, man. It’s all behind you. The code, man.”

“Sure,” Henry said carefully, “The code.”

“That’s why I can’t drive over the line, man.”

“Because of the code?”

T slapped the steering wheel and yelled, “Totally! They can tell when I cross the line. You get what I’m saying, right? It’s all true. They can hear totally my thoughts, man.”

“Your thoughts,” Henry said. He glanced over at the gas gauge. Half tank. He was going to be stuck here a while.

“You ever hear of the Weather Underground, bra?” T was looking at him with an unsavory spark in his eyes, “They home down in L.A.”

“Yeah… so what?”

T rolled his massive bulk closer. “They want me, man,” he whispered, “I’m serious as hell. They get the signal when I cross the line.” He grinned his golden grin and tapped a finger against his temple. “Got shot in the head with a special bullet. Bullet’s still there. Got a transmitter in it.”

“You don’t say,” Henry said carefully.

“Yeah, Clarkman. Government suits put it there. I can’t drive across the line or they get the transmission. But you can totally drive me across, man. I’m cool if you’re driving, see? Y’all got the code. But I drive? I’m totally toasted, man.”

“Sure,” Henry said carefully, “I understand. Maybe I should just drive right now.”

T started laughing again. The sound was too high pitched for his enormous body. “No, man, it’s all good. All good. We’re cool. We both got the code, except you got it wrote down, so they can’t hear you.”

“Wrote down,” Henry said.

“Yeah, man. It’s right there. And the thing is? Satellites can’t pick you up if you got it wrote down. See, I get it now. I was supposed to pick you up, feel me? It’s like destiny or something.”

“Destiny,” Henry said. Man, he sure as hell hoped not.

“It’s so awesome, bra!”

“Yeah, it’s awesome all right.” The man was a total nut job. He had to get the hell out of here.

“You ever surf, bra?”

Henry had never been so thankful for a change of subject in his life. “Not since I was a kid.”

“Man!” T yelled.

Henry nearly jumped from his skin.

“Brother’s gotta surf, man! Where you living?”

“Riverside.”

“Oh man, that’s so bad! They don’t got no surf there. You got to go west, young man.” He looked at Henry and laughed again. Then he looked at the road and stopped. Then he looked at Henry and started again.

Henry hoped it was the pot. Unfortunately, he had a sinking feeling it was something a little more permanent.

“Hey, Clarkman! You like hip-hop?”

“Absolutely not,” Henry said.

“I wrote me some sweet jabs. Want to hear some?”

“Not really.”

T started slapping out a rhythm on the steering wheel anyway. Then, much to Henry’s horror, he began singing. It was a wretched interpretation of a rap ditty, complete with oral turntable noises that sounded like he was trying to cough up a hairball. The lyrics, as near as he could tell, seemed to revolve almost exclusively around how much he enjoyed ‘titties’.

Henry drew a deep breath and settled back into his seat. This was going to be the Queen Mother of long nights.


FIFTY ONE

HENRY STARED OUT INTO THE DARKNESS FOLLOWING THEM.

He thought about Alice. He locked onto her face like it was a lifeline. He catalogued their moments together, starting with that first sight of her hanging out the van door like a paratrooper. He should’ve known right then and there that taking her hand was going to be like drinking from a little bottle of poison labeled in blue Sharpie: Don’t Drink Out of This Little Bottle of Poison.

T’s singing finally ended.

“That’s good, huh, bra? You dig that, man?”

Did the nut job say anything in less than a shriek? He had to find a way out of this car. The ride could not possibly get worse.

T looked over at him, and said, “You like sex, man?”

The ride just got worse.

Henry pretended he didn’t hear the question.

“Totally serious, man. You like sex, don’t you?”

Henry watched the passing rocks and tried to gauge how much damage he’d suffer if he threw himself out onto the shoulder.

“My songs turn me on so much! Serious as cancer, Clarkman. I can’t fight it. I gotta make a stop up here.”

Henry suddenly found hope. He immediately began formulating his escape plan.

“Just up here, man,” T pressed, “Got to stop and grab me a quick peek and pull.”

Peek and pull? What the hell? Was that like a rub and tug? Was this ever going to end? Henry decided the safest approach would be to simply not press the topic and hope it died a natural death.

They drove on for several more minutes. T began banging another hip-hop nightmare. Soon a sign flew past indicating Flagstaff was waiting for them just up ahead. Henry had never been happier. More inspiring, the gas gauge was finally giving up the ghost.

As Henry counted down the mile markers, he thought about Beth, about her thesis on the moment and time and mind, about being present. Much as he agreed that her theory held validity, he wanted nothing more on earth than to see this particular moment come to a screeching halt.

They passed several gas station exits before sweeping onto one leading into the city. The city meant more people. It improved his chances for flight. First available opportunity, he was getting the hell out of this nut bucket’s car. The guy was a freak.

Several minutes down an urban four-lane, he spied a sign promising Route Sixty-six just ahead. It made him think of Clarence. He wondered if he’d ever see that old man again. He kind of hoped so. He owed him an apology.

They turned onto San Antonio Street, and urged their way down through a long neighborhood of old shops and buildings. It didn’t look like an area designed for peeking or pulling, but who knew. Every town had its sordid side, and they were often camouflaged within a layer of respectability.

The buildings gradually grew older and more rundown. A couple tattoo and piercing joints gave evidence they were closing in on the right area. The sidewalk was seedier here, the cars less impressive. They pulled to a stop in front of an old, decaying red brick building. It was built in the classic industrial-era design of a squat box. Half the windows were bricked shut, the others were blinded with paint.

“I so love this place, man,” T said as he threw the shifter into park, “Every time I drive through, I gots to stop in and drop one here.”

Drop one here? Henry’s pulse tightened.

“Y’all are so gonna love this place, man. All college chicks and shit. You ever had a pair of college-style titties in your face? Sweet mercy! Feels better than pushing gunpoint, baby.” He was rubbing at his crotch more enthusiastically now.

Henry looked out at the bar’s flashing beer signs and watched them irritate the night from the two windows not covered in paint or brick. It didn’t look like a strip joint so much as a dive college bar, but it didn’t matter either way. There was no way he was going in there with this freak.

“Keep your eyes open in there, man. Gots to watch for the gangs around here. They’ll stick you just as sure as shit.”

“Gangs?” Henry looked out the back window. “It’s Flagstaff. What kind of gangs could they possibly have here? Cowboy Crips? Wranglers gone bad?”

“Listen up, Clarkman. This here’s a badass town. You gots to trust me. I know something about gangs, you feel me?”

“What does that mean? Do they have surfer gangs in Arizona?”

“No way, man,” T said, laughing, “I totally learned about them in prison.”

The air abruptly thickened. “Prison?” Henry asked tentatively, “When were you in prison?”

T looked up at the ceiling with his lips all tight and pressed out like he was trying to solve a calculus equation. “Let’s see,” he said, “Something like… uh, last month, I think.”

Henry felt the seat drop out beneath him. He couldn’t believe it. What happened to this trip’s momentum? What happened to everyone he met offering pearls of wisdom? He had the sour feeling his luck had gone south when he left Fort Drift.

“We gotta go around back, bra,” T said, “That’s where the club is. They gots to keep the titties back there on account of the gangs.”

Henry looked over at a suspicious alley that almost certainly led to a disreputable back lot. “Around back?” he said, “Are you serious?”

T leaned forward and rolled his bulk toward Henry. “Move your feet a sec, bra.”

Henry did. T probed around the seat beneath him. His head was nearly on Henry’s lap. Henry thought of Josho. He’d take the preacher over this train wreck any day. Hell, he’d take Josho over most of the people he knew.

T rolled back into his seat. He pulled a cigar box up onto his lap. Not the cardboard kind Henry remembered as a kid. This one was wooden. T slid the lid free. The inside was crammed full of tens and twenties. There had to be a thousand bucks there.

“Are you kidding?” Henry said, “You carry your cash in a cigar box?”

“Nah, not usually. Box was all they had at the gas station.”

“Gas station?”

T started counting out a stack of twenties.

“Doesn’t really seem safe,” Henry said just to keep the fool occupied, “Keeping your cash in a cigar box under the seat.” He turned around and looked down the street. It was quiet, practically no cars. Half the streetlights were out.

T laughed. “Safe,” he said as he counted, “Clarkman, you are some kind of funny. You crack me up, man.”

“You should get those switched to bigger bills,” Henry said, “So you can keep them on you. What if someone breaks into your car?” Henry watched a van cruise toward them. It only had one headlight. As it slowly sidled past, he suffered a pang of disappointment that it wasn’t Fort Drift.

“Yeah, yeah, dad.” T laughed. “Haven’t had time to change them.”

Henry looked at him. “Haven’t had time?”

“Yeah, just got them today, bra.”

As T picked out a small wad of bills, Henry saw a flash of blue steel at the bottom of the box. Was that a gun? A fucking gun? Perfect!

“T,” he said quickly, “Tell me something. Why exactly were you in prison?”

T slid the top back over the cigar box and looked over at him. “Call me Roger, man.”

Roger? What the hell? He didn’t even ask.

“Roger,” Henry said carefully, “Why exactly were you in prison?”

Roger counted off a half dozen notes from the wad and carefully placed the pile on a thigh as wide as an ironing board. Then he looked at Henry. “Say what?”

“What were you in prison for?”

“Which time, bra?”

Damn. Damn. Damn. Could this get any worse?

“This last time,” Henry heard himself ask, “What were you paroled for?”

Roger snorted. “Who said anything about parole? Clarkman, you are one hysterical mother.” He began counting the stack all over again.

Henry steadied himself. It was all he could do to keep from throwing himself from the car. He licked at his dry lips, and then he said carefully, “Roger, why were you in prison?”

Roger giggled weirdly. “They said I murdered my old lady, but they all full of shit. Ain’t no murder if they deserve it, right, bra? Then it’s just a execution, man.”

The temperature in the car plummeted. Henry felt like he’d just woken up in a swamp with a hundred alligators circling the raft. He watched Roger counting another stack of bills, tens this time. His heart felt on fire.

Beth’s face again flamed through his mind. If he ever saw her again he was go to explain to her in great detail just why moments are sometimes grossly overrated. Right now, he’d give up a week of his life to have this particular moment be a memory fading in his rearview mirror.

“You said you just got those today?” Henry said carefully.

“Yeah, bra.”

It was like one of those dreams where no matter how you asked it, you could never get the question to come out right. “Where, Roger?” Henry pressed, “Where did you get them?”

Roger didn’t stop counting. “Got the last of them right before I picked you up. I like the box, man. Makes it easier if I gotta to ditch it quick, you know? Easier to heave a box.”

Ditch it? Henry grabbed Alice’s dress shirt and began wiping down anything in the car he might’ve touched: The dash, the seatbelt buckle, the door handle. He couldn’t breathe. He had to get the hell out of here.

“Brother, this place is totally naughty,” Roger said too excitedly. He snickered like a little boy.

Henry used the shirt to open the door. He was so desperate to get out, he more fell out the door than climbed. Before he could make his retreat, he wiped down the outside handle. Then he started walking. Quickly.

He heard the driver’s door slam behind him. He quickened his pace. He could barely breathe. He wondered what it was going to feel like when the bullet found his back. Would it pass through? Would he die instantly or lay on the pavement like a worm after a rain, dying very slowly as the blood bubbled from his mouth?

He thought about Alice and bad decisions. He didn’t want to die like this, alone in a city on a nameless street. He should have gotten her number, her email address, anything. He should have stayed with her in Fort Drift.

“Clarkman!” Tyrone called from the car.

Henry flinched and increased his pace. This was it. This was where his self-pity and self-loathing, and his utter indifference to life had left him. Bleeding to death in the middle of the night in a dirty gutter, alone and forgotten. He didn’t even have his wallet, for Christ’s sake. How would they identify his body?

God, he wanted Alice. He wanted Alice and her whole whacky clan more than he wanted to breathe.

“What the hell, bra?” Roger yelled from behind him, “Where you going? Them titties are back here!”

Henry didn’t look back. He redoubled his pace and waved his hand up over his shoulder. “Thanks for the ride, bra!” he yelled without turning. He prayed the guy wouldn’t think him a threat. He felt a small burning sensation in the middle of his back where he was certain the lunatic was aiming his gun.

“Hold up, man!” Tyrone yelled back, “I’ll buy you a dance! Come on! Don’t be a tool, bra!”

Henry leaned into a jog. “No, I’m good!”

He glanced back over his shoulder. The guy was still at the car. The man was twice the size of the vehicle. Even in the worst case, he could surely out run him from here. Those handguns didn’t have very good aim, isn’t that right? Didn’t he see that on National Geographic or the History Channel or something?

“Henry!” Roger yelled, “Y’all’re pissing me off, bra!”

Henry broke into a full run. He threw another glance back at the car.

Roger had his arms outstretched with a wad of bills in each chubby fist. He stood at the back of the car. Something dark was tucked into his belt.

“Hey man, who’s gonna drive me over the border?” the fat man yelled.

Henry looked back over his shoulder and yelled, “I already drove you over the border!”

“No, man!” Roger yelled back, “I’m talking California. How do I cross that border, bra?”

Henry laughed. He was far enough away now that he was pretty sure he was safe. The sense of relief was nearly overwhelming. He turned so he was jogging backward, cupped his mouth, and shouted, “Use the code, bra!”

“What the hell? How do I do that, bra?”

“Dude!” Henry yelled back, “Lift your feet as the car passes the over the state border! They can’t hear you when you do that!”

Roger watched him for a moment, his fat, money-filled hands still out at his side. “Really, man?”

“Would I lie to you, bra?” Henry called back, “Dude, I’m a code man, just like you!”


FIFTY TWO

HENRY SLIPPED ALICE’S DRESS SHIRT ON OVER HIS TEE.

It was cold, and it was getting colder fast. Then he remembered that Albuquerque was a mile high. He didn’t even know how he knew it, he just knew it. It probably got down to freezing here at night this time of year. He buttoned his dress shirt up to his Adam’s apple and shoveled his hands in his the pockets of his pants. Then he increased his pace, hoping to generate some body heat.

He was royally pissed at himself! Stupid moron! He should’ve known better than to get in that car. Idiot! Tyrone/Roger/T was a murderer and a thief and, more than likely an escaped convict. He’d probably robbed a gas station or a liquor store or a Dairy Queen right before picking him up. He wondered if that really was a gun in that box. Damn! It had to be. What if they’d been pulled over? Damn! Damn! Damn!

Had he gotten all his prints out of the car? He thought so. He hadn’t touched that much. Seatbelt buckle. Got it. Door handle, inside and out. Got it. Dashboard? Got it. Seat cushion? He didn’t think so, but he didn’t think he’d touched it. He sure as hell hoped not. God help him, this moment was going to haunt him for a long damned time. He couldn’t possibly do prison time. Alice had said it straight: You got some real purty lips.

He laughed at that. Thank you, Alice. You’ve saved me again.

The neighborhood he was walking through was lousy, but he didn’t feel particularly unsafe. It was old in the Old West sense. Some buildings looked really ancient, but not in that antique, old world, charming way. More like in a Catch-22 kind of way: They’re older than dirt and look like hell, but we can’t tear them down because they’re older than dirt. A typical block displayed a few unremarkable old redstone buildings that looked like they’d been there a hundred years. They were interspersed with seventies strip mall shacks and gas stations.

He saw a sign indicating Historic Route Sixty-Six and followed it. He walked a couple miles, following the evidence toward I-40. The walking helped warm him, but it was definitely getting colder. He could see his breath in the streetlight. He passed a store with an ancient digital clock in the window. It was a breath away from midnight. Last night at this time, he was driving their wounded back from the Cheatin’ Heart.

That thought knocked the wind from him. Was it just last night? How was it even possible? It couldn’t be possible. He and Alice joked about their year together, but the truth was it didn’t seem much of a stretch. That’s exactly what it felt like, a year together.

This really was his Magnum Opus. He’d thoroughly outdone himself this time. Three cheers for Henry. This was master level deconstruction.

Alice.

He sighed.

What the hell did you do to me?


FIFTY THREE

HENRY WATCHED A DARK SEDAN ROLLING TOWARD HIM.

It was a late model Impala. It was so white, it looked like a florescent light tube rolling through the darkness.

He was cold enough that he was actually starting to shake. The car passed him in that slow, deliberate way that told him the driver was appraising him. The windows were tinted too dark to see inside. There was a magnetic sign on the passenger door that read Monica Darkveil, Psychic Counselor, with a phone number. The car slid several yards past, then the brake lights flamed. A moment later, the reverse lights popped on, and it rolled back toward him, moving just as lazily as it had passed.

Hope!

He bent down as the window glided open. It stopped half way. The heat wafting out from it felt like standing before a brazier.

A woman leaned over into the passenger space. She had fine, shoulder length black hair with the bangs cut square across her forehead. Her face was long and angular, and comfortable to look at. If she’d been a man, they’d have called the look rugged. In a woman, he thought the word was handsome. Or maybe winsome. He couldn’t remember.

“Riverside?” she said.

Henry felt a chill. He looked down at the sign. Monica Darkveil, Psychic Counselor. He looked back at her. “Are you serious?” he said.

“Yes, I’m seriously going to Riverside. You want a ride or not?” She had a smoky, sensuous voice.

The heat pouring out the window was incentive enough. Henry got in.

“Man, it’s freezing out there,” he said as he buckled up.

“I know.” She quickly accelerated down the ramp and merged into the cruising lane.

She was older than him, maybe closer to forty or forty-five, and thin in a nice way. She had dark eyes that looked happy to be there. She was actually quite attractive in a serious, metropolitan, no-nonsense kind of way.

“I thought this was the desert,” she said without looking at him, “What’s up with this temperature?”

“Well,” he said, “We are at altitude. Albuquerque’s a mile high, so there’s less atmosphere to keep the heat in.”

She shot him a look that felt a little annoyed. “It was rhetorical. What are you, the Vagabond Geographer?”

Henry wasn’t sure if he’d just been slapped. “No,” he said, “Just full of useless information, I guess.”

“So it seems. My name’s Monica.” She didn’t offer a hand.

“I’m Henry. Thanks for the lift.”

“Where are you going, Henry?”

“Shouldn’t you be able to tell me that?” he said, grinning.

She sent him another look. This one didn’t beat around the bush, either. “Full of useless information and an annoying sense of humor. Great. It’s going to be a long drive.”

“Sorry.” He felt his face flush. “I just meant… I mean, what with you being a psychic and all… ?”

“Yeah, I got it. You’re a real hoot, Henry. Keep it up. I think I’m starting to see your future.” She put a couple fingers to her brow and focused her eyes. “Yes… I see you in the middle of Arizona. You’re on a dark road in the middle of the desert. You’re lost, cold, hungry…”

“Okey dokey, then,” he said, “Note to self, no more psychic jokes.”

She looked at him again, but this time she laughed. “I’m just kidding. I get that all the time. I’ve learned it’s best to shoot back quickly.”

“So, you’re really a psychic?”

“So, you’re really a hitchhiker?”

“Funny.”

“Not so much.”

She had a dry wit. He liked it. “I really appreciate the ride.”

“You already thanked me. You should know I find repetition tedious.”

“Sorry.” He wasn’t sure what else to say.

“I don’t usually pick up hitchhikers,” she said.

“Well, we’re in good company, then. I don’t usually hitchhike.”

“Perfect.”

They drove on for a few minutes in silence. Then Henry said, “So, why did you pick me up, then? I mean, if you usually don’t?”

She shrugged. “I sensed a quiet desperation about you. I’m a sucker for that in a man. Besides, how dangerous can a grown man wearing a Superman uniform be?”

Henry looked down at himself. His Alice overshirt was buttoned all the way up to his neck. His uniform wasn’t even exposed. He felt a queer chill. He wanted to say something about it, but didn’t know which way to go with it.

“Don’t make a deal out of it, Henry.” She sent him a crafty smile. “It is what it is.”

“Then, you are the real thing?” He couldn’t believe he was asking the question.

“Define real thing.”

“You really have psychic abilities.”

“I hate that word used in such context. Abilities? That’s stupid.”

“What do you prefer? Gift?”

“Gift.” She laughed. “That one never gets old. Is your sense of balance a gift, Henry?”

“I don’t know. Never thought of it that way.”

“How about your proprioception?”

“I’m not even sure what that is.”

“If your arm is out of sight do you still know where it is?”

“Oh, I get it. Like position awareness.”

“Is that a gift?”

“Not really. It’s just a function of my body.”

“Ding!”

He settled back in his seat and again wondered how she’d seen his uniform. Maybe while he bent into the car when she first stopped. She probably saw down his dress shirt. There had to be something that gave it away.

“Don’t over analyze it, Henry.”

“What, are you reading my mind?”

“You can’t read a mind, Henry. It’s not a comic book.”

“Then what’s a psychic?”

“Different animal altogether.”

He laughed. “Why do I have the feeling that with you I’ll either be on the offense or defense?”

“I would guess because you’re intuitive, Henry. And because you’re right.”

“Hm, I’m liking you better by the moment,” he said. He meant it. “This is going to be a most interesting ride, isn’t it, Monica?”

“For which of us?”

He looked at her.

“Still kidding, Henry. Relax.”

He wasn’t sure he should. “You’re not exactly easy, are you?”

“I’ve got my darkness just like you,” she said.

Henry’s alarms started ringing. He looked over at her. “So, how’s this going to work, Monica? Do I have to put up a barricade of mental razor wire to keep you from hearing my thoughts?”

He laughed at that. She didn’t.

“First of all,” she said, “I hear with my ears just like you. Thoughts don’t make sounds. Second, I’ve got you filtered, so you can just take a chill. Third, nobody reads minds except in the movies. We just get impressions.”

“Impressions? Meaning what?”

“Meaning I don’t hear your thoughts like Boris Karloff is whispering in my ear. I get a sense, like a picture flash.”

“Like a picture flash,” he repeated, “I don’t get it.”

“A blonde girl with the green eyes.”

Henry froze at that. Alice’s face rushed into his mind, and he suffered a pang of grief for it. “What did you say?” he asked her.

“It doesn’t matter, Henry.”

He wondered if he’d even heard her right. She couldn’t know about Alice. There was a trick in here somewhere, he just had to find it.

“Relax. I won’t go tiptoeing through your head uninvited, I promise.”

“Do you get these impressions often?”

“Didn’t I just tell you I have you filtered?” She threw her dark eyes at him. “Nobody likes worry warts, Henry. They’re dreary.”

She was no nonsense. He liked that. It put him at ease.

“That’s not what I’m asking,” he said, “I’m asking if you get impressions routinely?”

“Do you hear things routinely, Henry? Or just when you actively listen?”

“Okay, I get it. No more stupid questions. Tell me how you do it. Filter, I mean.”

The tail of the pickup truck in front of them was coming up fast. He wondered if she was going to move over. She merged into the passing lane just in time to avoid rear-ending it. The dashboard green face of the driver of the pickup gave him the what-the-hell look as they passed.

“It’s complicated,” she said, “You just learn. It’s a kind of self-preservation.”

“But, you have to actively filter things out. You can’t just not accept the impressions?”

“Henry, have you ever seen something you wished you hadn’t?”

The garage tried to stampede into his head, but he immediately blocked it. “Sure,” he said seriously, “Of course I have.”

“Why didn’t you will yourself not to see it when you did?”

“What?”

“Why didn’t you actively anticipate that you might see something unappealing, then set your sight to avoid it?”

“Because I don’t know it’s coming,” he said. And then he grinned. “Okay, I get it. Really, I totally get it.”

“You ever see a scary movie where you squinch your eyes right before the really bad scene comes around?”

“Sure,” he said, “Pretty much every time.”

“It’s a little something like that, though you’d have to imagine it fifty times worse than a scary scene in a movie. Receiving an impression you don’t want can be ugly. There’s usually a great deal too much emotion in it.”

“What if you forget to filter?”

“One trip through the grocery store without filters, and you learn to never do it again. You only have to suffer through one dirty memory or bad intention or intense loss. It’s not usually an image so much as a pulse of raw emotion. Trust me, you adapt. Horrors abound out there, Henry. It’s why I spend most weekends in the country and far, far away from humanity.”

“That is too bizarre.” Too bizarre to be true, he thought.

“Bizarre is as bizarre does.” She looked over at him. Her face was filled with the ghostly light of oncoming traffic. “You’re a skeptic, Henry. But that’s okay. I have no need to prove anything to you.”

“So, what about me?” he said.

“What about you?”

“Are you picking anything up from me right now?”

“Not especially, other than what I’ve mentioned. I usually put up the shields as soon as I’m within talking distance of people.”

“Oh.”

“Wait, that’s not entirely true. I actually did get something very briefly when we first spoke.”

“What, besides the girl with green eyes?”

“Yes.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“It wasn’t much, just a faint impression.”

“What?”

“You might not like it.”

“Seriously, is this the kind of drama you use with your paying clients? Just tell me, already.”

She looked over at him. “I saw your car.”

Henry just looked at her. What the hell was that supposed to mean?

“There’s a flat tire,” she said, “I think it was at a gas station or some kind of fenced lot. I’d recognize the place if I saw it. At least, I think I would. But it could be anywhere.”

“I don’t know how to respond to that, Monica,” he said, watching her. He didn’t recall mentioning having lost his car.

“Was that a hit?” she said.

He was sure she already knew the answer. “Can’t speak to the flat tire,” he practically whispered, “But, otherwise… ding.”

She continued watching the road. Another wave of light washed over her face. She didn’t look particularly impressed with herself.

“How did you do that?” Henry asked carefully.

“You mean what cues did I pick up on that gave me the information.” It wasn’t a question. She still wasn’t looking at him. “It’s all right, Henry. I’ve spent my life around skeptics. It’s all good. You don’t have to believe me. In fact, I couldn’t really care less if you do or not. Most skeptics actively avoid the truth. It’s a safety issue, I believe.”

He knew she didn’t mean that vindictively or because she was offended. It was just the simple truth. “It’s nothing personal,” he said, “It’s just… you know, I’m victim of a scientific mind.”

“Want another one?” This time she looked him full on.

“Mind?”

“Impression.”

He thought about it a moment. He thought about the secrets he had locked in his dungeon. She was probably the last person he should let in. If she thought a trip through the grocery store was filled with horrors, just wait until she strolled through his garden.

Anyway, the truth was, though he had been certain she was a fake when they first met, it seems the jury had just reconvened to deliberate the decision.

“Think I’m going to pass,” he said, “Thanks all the same.”

She looked back at the road. “Suit yourself.”

“Okay,” he said, laughing, “Nice weather we’re having.”

“That’s a matter of opinion.”


FIFTY FOUR

HENRY WATCHED ANOTHER MILE MARKER ROLL PAST.

They came at him like the ticks on a clock, a never-ending countdown. Yet he dashboard clock seemed stalled at two-thirty. He figured they’d hit Riverside around seven in the morning. And then what? When had he slept last? Really slept? He figured he’d gotten a total of maybe seven hours sleep in the past few days. Didn’t seem like enough.

He watched the distant house lights slipping slowly past them out in the scrubs beyond the road like the spirit forces of the dead. It looked lonely out there. It probably seemed worse at night. He again wondered what could possibly draw normal people to live out here. Maybe it was a good place to hide. Maybe it was filled with serial killers.

Then he thought of Alice. He thought about their last moment together and all the delicious details he’d committed to memory. But the sad truth was the details were already gathering dust. They were already fading. He wished he’d gotten a picture of her.

“What’s her name, Henry?”

Henry’s stomach lurched. He looked over at Monica. “I’m sorry?”

“The girl. What’s her name?”

“Are you using your abil—” He stopped. Corrected. “Are you getting impressions from me, Monica? You told me you had me filtered.”

She flashed her soft, rugged smile at him. Her lipstick was a few shades redder than most women could pull off. It made her perfect teeth so white they seemed otherworldly.

“I don’t need to read your mind to see you’re in love, Henry.”

He thought about that. “I’m not sure I am,” he lied, “And anyway, it’s… it didn’t work out. And that’s the end of that story.”

“Well, that’s too bad.” She said it like she meant it. She wasn’t trying to comfort him or be empathic. She just saw it for what it was and called it out.

“It’s nothing,” he lied.

He looked back to the night. His reflection stared back at him from the passenger window, all ghostly and accusing. You’re such a liar, Henry. Haven’t you learned anything?

“Not so sure you’re being honest, Henry,” she said, “Love’s a pretty valuable commodity to be throwing away with such a cavalier attitude, I’d say.”

Ouch, that stung. “I honestly don’t know,” he lied again.

Monica laughed. “You don’t know? You look like a man whose heart is pieces. How can you just write it off with I don’t know? You’re not very decisive, are you?”

He thought about that. “I usually am. But this has been a pretty bizarre weekend.”

“How did you end up out here with a broken heart and no car?”

“Talent,” he said seriously, “And a lot of experience.”

“Yeah,” she said, looking at him again, “I can see that.”

The lights washed over her face. She had eyes like a raptor, focused and piercing. They weren’t the same surgical laser eyes like Alice or Mrs. Pena, the kind of eyes that look deep past the skin in search of a point of purchase, a point where they can apply their healing tonics. These eyes were looking for weakness.

“You’re cloaked in one hell of a deep, dark aura, Henry.”

“A dark aura?” he said.

“Unquestionably.”

“Is that a psychic observation?”

“In part. In part, it’s my education.”

“You have a degree?”

She sent him a look. “What? Because I’m psychic, I’m just naturally unlettered? Perhaps even stupid?”

“Uh…”

“I have multiple degrees, hotshot. So tread carefully. It’s not wise to jump to conclusions.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“One of my master degrees is in counseling.”

One of her master degrees. “Interesting combination of skills,” he said to regroup.

“Turns out, not so much. One tends to get in the way of the other.”

“How so?”

She shrugged. “It’s complicated. I thought being able to get impressions of a person’s issues from the inside would help guide them better from the outside. Turns out, not so much. I found myself trying to actively guide them toward the goal. Even if they weren’t ready.”

He shrugged and looked at another passing mile marker. “I suppose that makes sense. You’re pretty direct. Not that I’m an expert. I’m not all that familiar with the whole counseling process. From either side.”

“You should be.”

That one caught a piece of flesh. “You only just met me,” he said straight at her, “What was it you just said about jumping to conclusions?”

“It wasn’t an insult, Henry. Put away the guns.”

He rolled his head back toward the passing darkness and his miserable reflection. “Sorry,” he whispered. He was.

“I see what I see,” she said, “And I’ve got two eyes and a pretty good brain backing up my internal sight, so I see a lot more than most.”

Henry couldn’t resist looking over at her again. A bright light reflected back from the rearview mirror. It flooded her eyes. He twisted around and looked back through the rear window. “Asshole has his high beams on.”

“He does,” she said matter-of-factly

“He’s right on your ass.”

“He is.”

“There’s not another car in sight,” he said, still watching the car trailing them, “Why doesn’t he pass?”

“He’s not present.”

“I know. He’s an idiot.”

“No,” she said carefully, “He’s not an idiot. He’s just not present. He has a woman on his mind.”

He looked at her. “Oh.”

He felt her decelerate. The speedometer eased its way down from eighty to seventy to sixty. Finally, the car behind them swung around and passed. Monica gradually returned to their previous speed. The offending car rapidly tooled away from them.

“Man, what is with people like that?” he said.

“Nothing. He was just preoccupied. It happens.”

“Preoccupied,” he said, “I suppose.”

“Not everyone can be the decision-meister you are, Henry.”

He sniffed at that. “Hilarious, Monica.”

She laughed.

“No, really,” he said, “You’re a regular joker. Maybe you should change your plaque to Witty Psychic Counselor.”

“Oh, Henry. You’re so dreary.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot.”

“I imagine you do.”

They watched the darkness roll past for a bit, then he again rolled his head toward her. “Question,” he said, “Is Darkveil your real name or a professional one?”

“Some things just can’t be made up. It’s my real name. So is Monica, if you were considering asking.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Want me to tell you yours?”

Henry felt another chill. “You know my last name?”

She smirked, but didn’t look at him. “Nah, I just like to see you sweat.”

He laughed. “You’ve got one mean cruel streak in you, Monica Darkveil.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Is the Psychic Counselor gig your main job?”

She gave him a look that told him in no uncertain terms he’d best not be playing her again. “Yes, Henry. Do you have an opinion on that you’d like to share?”

“No, not at all.” He didn’t. “It’s interesting, though. Do you work on the road? Or do you have an office? Or maybe a parlor? Maybe a tent?”

“You are so going to be walking soon.”

“It’s probably pretty low overhead, right? I mean, what could you need? A place to stand? Do you use a crystal ball or tarot cards or anything?”

“I recommend you consider changing tack, Henry. I recommend you do so quickly. It’s very dark out here.”

“Seriously,” he said, “I’d think you could probably do it anywhere, except maybe while showering or driving.”

“Actually, it’s easier while I’m driving.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

She was serious. “Why is that?” he said, “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“It’s a distraction, like listening to music. Lets me focus without being overtly aware I’m doing so.”

“Interesting.”

“You keep saying interesting the way most people say bullshit.”

“That’s not what I meant, Monica. Put away the guns.”

“In my experience,” she said, “The skeptics are usually the ones most afraid of the trait.”

“Do I strike you as afraid, Monica?”

“More than just about anyone I’ve ever met, Henry.” She slashed at him with those raptor eyes.

He looked out the window. “Whatever.”

The radio whispered just below listening level. It sounded like jazz but was too low to identify. The tires hummed in soothing tedium beneath them. He realized time was passing finally faster than he’d hoped. More than that, it was passing pleasantly. For a change.

But Henry found his curiosity growing too quickly to contain. He looked over at her. “So, you can tell my future, then? While driving eighty miles per hour down the freeway?”

“No.”

“No? What, no?”

“I can’t see your future. No one can.”

“But I thought—”

“The future hasn’t happened yet, Henry. So what’s to see? There’s only now and what’s inside your head. That, and the past, which is still pretty much just in your head. That’s it, son. Don’t look for anything else.”

He laughed at that.

“What’s funny?”

“Themes,” he said, “Themes are funny. I seem to have run from one theme to another all weekend.”

“That’s probably something I don’t need to understand, but thank you all the same.”

She threw on her signal as she passed a truck. The blinker’s ticking seemed louder than it should have, like someone beating sticks together.

“So, you want to give me a try?” He wasn’t sure why he said it. He didn’t even believe in it. Then again, he wasn’t sure didn’t not believe in it.

She looked at him too long, then turned back to her driving. “I’m going to take a pass on that, Henry.”

“What? Why?” He felt a little slighted.

“I already told you.”

“No, I don’t think you did.”

“It’s not going to happen, Henry. Give it up.”

“But you’ve already mentioned stuff. You’ve already opened the door. So, now I’m curious.”

“The impressions I’ve picked up from you have just been peripheral chatter. It’s the small stuff that gets past the filter. Usually doesn’t have any meaning. Stuff like worries about forgetting to turn off a lamp, things like that. Nothing with any drama or importance.”

Henry wasn’t convinced. She’d described it the way a salesman describes the benefits of a clock radio with a dial face over a digital one, like she didn’t honestly have a vested interest in either one, like she was just going through the motions in hopes the customer would get as bored as she was and leave so she could get back to her cigarette break.

“So you have to look closer to see the real meat?” Henry pressed.

She shrugged. “Most of the time. Depends.”

“But you won’t look closer at me?”

“No.”

He watched her for a moment. Then he remembered. “Because of my aura,” he said, “You said it was dark.”

She still didn’t look at him. He noticed her hands tighten on the steering wheel.

“Is that it?” he said.

“Let it go, Henry.”

“I’m just trying to understand.” There was no way in hell he was letting this go.

She still didn’t look at him. She just kept driving.

He was getting a little pissed, and he didn’t even know why. The best thing for him right now would be to walk away. But as usual, he didn’t. As usual, he kept pushing on that sore spot until it was good and swollen. “Well, I don’t know,” he said as he looked out into the night, “Sounds like a copout to me. Or maybe you’re just full of hot air.”

“You can’t dare me into it,” she said like she had some experience with that tack, “Let it go. It’s not worth it.”

“Fine, but I’m feeling a little gyped.” It came out more sarcastically than he’d intended.

“Gyped?” she said, giving him a reprimanding glare, “What are you, twelve? That’s a bit of an offensive word, don’t you think?”

Henry sighed and sank back into his seat. “Duly chastised,” he said softly, “I’m just tired. I apologize.”

Why had he even pressed it? Because he felt inexplicably comfortable with her, that’s why, though he couldn’t explain the rationale behind it. Maybe it was his recent history. Maybe it was some strange pathology. Maybe his exposure to all these unnaturally interesting strangers over the past two days had somehow lowered his trust threshold.

Another green mile counter ticked past. The Epic Outing was quickly winding down. He tried to think back across it, but it felt like a cartoon scenario, like walking into a ten by ten foot room and finding a palace on the inside. He couldn’t find the details through the depth of time separating them.

“Look, Henry. I mean no offense.”

Henry startled at her voice. He looked over at her. “Offense? What offense? I’m not offended.”

“No, I mean by what I’m about to say.”

Her eyes were still locked on the road, her hands on the wheel. Her mouth was drawn a little too tight. She looked like she was trying too hard to concentrate on something.

“Did you get another impression?” he asked her.

She kept driving.

“You did, didn’t you? What is it?”

She looked over at him, but didn’t linger.

“It’s okay, Monica. Just tell me.”

“I pushed a little deeper in,” she said too softly.

He didn’t like the sound of this. “And? Seriously, just say it. There’s nothing you could say that would surprise me. Not this weekend. After this weekend, I’m seriously cast from iron.”

She looked at him, but again her eyes didn’t linger. “Henry, you seem like a good guy.”

“I have my moments.” He forced out a laugh that sounded as choreographed as it was.

“I was telling you the truth before. You have a bad aura.”

“Okay, bad aura. Got it.”

“No,” she said, looking him full on, “I mean bad like in dangerous. Bad like in foreboding. Bad like in they make horror movies about guys like you.”

His darkness stirred. He felt a mood approaching in the shadowy distance. This suddenly wasn’t fun anymore. “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” he said.

“Yes, you do.”

He didn’t even attempt to retort that. No point lying to her now.

“You’re carrying someone else’s stink on you, Henry. I don’t have to go inside to smell it. You’re marked. You’re haunted by someone else’s karma. You need to open that cage and throw those old ghosts out before they drag you down with them. And believe me, Henry, they will take you down.”

Henry’s breath locked in his chest. He felt a drop of sweat tickling down his sternum.

“Shall I keep going?” Monica said.

Henry couldn’t look at her. Instead, he looked out into the night, and he nodded. “Yes,” he heard himself say, “Sure. Why not?”

He heard her carefully lick her lips. He heard her take a drink from a plastic bottle she had tucked in her door well. He heard her recap it, slowly, deliberately, then put it back in its place.

He gripped the plastic armrest on the door. Brace yourself, Henry, this is probably going to smart.

“There’s a woman,” she said.

Henry’s heart skipped at that.

“She’s dead.”

Henry willed himself to keep breathing.

“She was close to you. I get the sense that you cared for this ghost, that you danced with this ghost for a while, but that you didn’t really love her, not in the end. There was too much drama in the end.”

Henry felt the blood vacate his head. His chest was tight. He wanted to speak to that, to correct her, to tell her he loved her very much, but his doubts were gagging him.

“She’s gone now, but she refuses to leave. Or she can’t leave. For some reason, you’re unable to… no… no, wait. Not unable. Unwilling. You’re unwilling to cut the shackles to that ghost. You won’t let her go even though retaining that hold on her keeps your world burning.”

More sweat. And yet, his skin felt like ice.

 “My sense, Henry, is that you have to cut her loose. You have to throw loose the shackles that imprison her in your life. If you don’t give that ghost up, she will kill you. I don’t mean that metaphorically, Henry. I mean she will kill you.”

She stopped talking.

Henry felt like he’d suddenly succumbed to paralysis. Eventually, he looked over at her. Her eyes were red and wet.

“You have to believe me, Henry,” she said softly, “You have to get rid of her, and you have to do it soon. Your time is running out, and the end will be bloody and dark.”

Henry’s pulsed beat so hard against his ears, he felt sick. He heard the distant rattle of a cell door, but closed his eyes against it. He couldn’t let her out. He didn’t dare let her out. Not here, not now.

“Do you believe me, Henry?”

“Maybe,” he whispered, “I don’t know.”

“I think you do.”

Henry looked out the window again. He felt Zoe’s breath on his neck.

Monica pulled a tissue from a packet resting on the compartment separating them. “That’s why I can’t visit you, Henry,” she said as she wiped her nose, “That’s why I won’t allow a deeper impression from you. I can’t let you get any closer. You’re far too dangerous for me. I can’t let that kind of darkness into my head.”

“I don’t—”

“Some rooms should be kept locked,” she said, “There are some rooms no one but the owner should be allowed into. There are some rooms you walk into that you don’t walk out of alone.”

Henry dragged his hair away from his face. He glanced over at her, but quickly deflected his eyes back out into the night. He suddenly felt dirty, or maybe more like contaminated. Zoe wrestled him for control over his thoughts. The forbidden box was open, the locks in ruins. Everything she said was the truth. Zoe was going to kill him.

He wanted to say something, wanted to denounce her observations, to tell her she was full of shit. But he couldn’t. It appeared she was psychic after all.


FIFTY FIVE

HENRY WONDERED IF HE SHOULD OFFER TO DRIVE.

It was almost four in the morning. She had to be tired. She’d been driving all night, after all.

“I can drive all night,” she said, smiling at him.

He felt the bite of irritation. “I thought you had me filtered, Monica.”

“I do,” she said, laughing, “But I told you, some things are just little pulses, like a craving for candy or the urge to pee. Can’t filter everything, son. Sorry.”

He sighed. “Man, you are some piece of work.”

“Yeah, so you said.”

“Honestly, I’m glad to drive if you’re getting tired.”

“Thanks. But I don’t really get tired.”

“No?”

“I don’t sleep much. Maybe a few hours every day or two.”

“Why is that?” And he thought he was tired.

She looked out at the passing night. “Don’t know. Figure it just comes with the territory.”

Henry yawned and stretched back against the seat. “Speaking of the urge to pee,” he said.

“I’m stopping for gas soon.”

“Excellent.”

A few minutes later, Henry watched another exit slide past. Several gas stations had their signs hoisted high above the freeway like flags of port. He glanced over at her fuel gage. It was uncomfortably low. He didn’t understand why she wasn’t stopping. “Are you looking for a specific brand?” he asked her.

“I don’t know.”

It took him a moment to process the words. “You don’t know? I’m… I’m not sure what you mean by that.”

She licked her lips. She adjusted the rearview mirror. She didn’t look at him.

“Monica, what’s up? Is something wrong?”

“This isn’t the place.”

He looked back at the gas station signs fading behind them. “What place?”

“I don’t know.”

“Monica, I—”

“I’ll know it when I see it!”

That felt like a slap. Probably time to back away.

“I’m sorry, Henry,” she said with a glance, “It won’t be long. Are you okay for a bit?” 

“Sure,” he said, watching her, “But how do you know it won’t be long if you don’t know what you’re looking for?”

“Perils of the profession, I’m afraid.” She offered him a smile that was fully out of context with the clouds in her eyes.

“I see,” he said. In fact, he suddenly did. “You’re following an impression.”

“I don’t think it’ll be far.”

“There you go sounding all confident again,” he said, laughing.

She didn’t look at him.

He wondered if this was what hunting with bloodhounds was like. It’d probably have been more fun if he knew what their prey looked like.


FIFTY SIX

HENRY REPLACED THE NOZZLE.

He screwed the cap back on the tank and looked up at the scratchy display screen. Do you want a receipt? Why, yes, I do.

The receipt dispenser chugged and coughed. The first half-inch of receipt slipped out quickly, but the rest of it coiled up back behind the dispenser. He tore off what he could and looked at it.

“Hope the name of the station’s enough for her,” he muttered.

Monica came around the pump and tossed him a package. It was one of those scary looking sandwiches in wedge-shaped plastic modules, the kind most likely made in China and sent to unsuspecting Americans because the Chinese people wouldn’t have anything to do with it. It appeared to be some mutant variation of chicken drowned in a white substance resembling salad dressing. He looked up just in time to catch a plastic bottle of water.

“Thanks,” he said, “You didn’t have to—”

“Get in.”

He shrugged and obeyed.

“I think we’re close,” she said. She threw the car in gear and wheeled it about on a squeal of rubber.

“Holy crap, Monica!” he said, dropping the water bottle and grabbing the dash, “What the hell?” The water went rolling under the seat.

“We’re close,” she said, as she ripped up the on-ramp, “I think we’re very close.”

“Close to what, exactly?”

She accelerated with enough g-force to startle an astronaut.

“All righty, then,” he said as he fought to secure his seatbelt, “Get in, sit down, hold on, and shut up. Got it.”

She actually laughed at that. “Sorry, Henry. I’m like a hound when I catch a scent. I have to find it.”

Exactly as he’d thought. “It’s okay,” he said, “I’m good with that. But it’d be more interesting if I knew what we were after.”

“I’d tell you, but—”

“You’d have to kill me?”

“Don’t’ be so dramatic. I don’t want to tell you in case I’m wrong, that’s all.”

He gasped at that. “You’re… you’re wrong sometimes?” he said, “I can’t believe that! I think I’m going to be sick!”

“Asshole.”

“Monica, how will I know you were right if I don’t know what we’re chasing? You could find a rock and say, oh yeah this is the rock I was after.”

“You’ll know.”

“Again, I say… all righty, then.”

It was getting warm. He unbuttoned Alice’s shirt and slipped it off. He tossed it into the backseat. Then he leaned down between his legs and began fishing for his water under the seat.

“Henry? Can I ask you something without you getting all freakish on me?”

“Sure,” he grunted as he searched, “Go for it.”

“Is Alice the girl with the green eyes?”

Henry choked. He threw himself back into his seat and looked at her. “How could you possibly know that?”

“It’s not what you—”

“Are you probing me after all, Monica? I offered to let you. You shouldn’t say no and then do it anyway. It’s rude.”

“No, Henry. It’s written all over you.”

He just stared at her.

“Never mind,” she said, laughing.

He looked down at his uniform. Then he looked back at her. “Is this a joke?”

“Yes, Henry. It’s a joke. You probably said her name in your sleep.” She returned her attention to her driving.

“Funny,” he said, thinking about it, “I don’t remember sleeping.”

She giggled at that. “God, you’re easy.”


FIFTY SEVEN

HENRY WATCHED THE MOTEL SLIDE PAST.

It was the usual sixties style drive-in motel, and in case anyone passing by had any doubts, there was a billboard-sized sign outside it with decaying black block letters on a plain white background saying MOTEL. Nothing else, just MOTEL. Two ramshackle buildings down from that MOTEL was an ancient alpine coffee shop with a similarly clever sign out front that read COFFEE SHOP. Again, black letters against a plain white background. It seemed nothing in Despegar, Arizona had a name.

Dawn was breaking, and with it came the spectacular vista surrounding the town. It was a breathtaking sight, miles and miles of desert scrub. It reminded him of Defiance, except flatter, dirtier, and even less colorful. Looking at this place, Defiance seemed almost tropical.

“Keep your eyes open, Henry,” Monica said. She sounded urgent.

“For what?” he said, looking at her.

“Just do as I say.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  She seemed far too serious to argue with.

They tooled past two gas stations, each with a huge semi parking lot, each with only two semis in that huge lot. Wedged conveniently between them was a brand new Dairy Queen that looked as out of place out here as earrings on a pig.

Monica took a right and accelerated under the overpass. On the other side of the highway was another brand new gas station and another huge semi parking lot, but this one had three trucks in it. These people in Despegar really seemed to like their semi parking lots. Then again, there was more than enough room for them.

“We’re close,” she said as she flew past the lot, “I can smell it.”

She went another quarter mile, then wheeled the car over onto the loose gravel shoulder and hit the brakes hard. Henry thought he might’ve cracked a rib against the shoulder harness.

“Damn, Monica! What the hell?”

“We’re close,” she whispered, “We’re very, very close.” He suspected she was talking to herself more than him.

She hit the gas, wheeling the car around back the way they’d come from and leaving a dust storm in their wake. They ripped past the parking lot again. Again, she hit the brakes and slid into the shoulder.

“No!” she screamed. She pounded the steering wheel. “No! No! No!”

“Monica, take a breath!” Henry said, “Seriously, what the hell’s going on?” He wondered if he should just get out now.

Then her face lit up. She looked like she’d suddenly been filled with divine love. She glanced back over her shoulder toward the first semi parking lot behind them. “Yes!” she shrieked.

Henry nearly ruined his underwear.

“I think we’re close, Superman!” She wheeled the car around and floored it.

Henry felt like he’d been punched. “What did you call me?”

“Oh my God!” she screamed, “Over there! Over there! Over there!”

“Wait, what did you just call me?”

“I think that’s it!”

The car tore across the parking lot at a ridiculous speed with Monica hunched over the steering wheel like she was driving the 500.

“Look, Henry! Is that it?”

Henry followed her pointing finger straight ahead. Not that he needed it since they were already barreling too fast across the lot toward the indicated sight.

Lining the side of the lot farthest from the gas station proper were several cars. They were parked at varying angles against a failing hurricane fence that accurately reflected the mass state of decay of the area. The cars were so dusty and dirty he could barely identify a color between them.

“Is that it, Henry?” Monica slid the car to a stop before the lineup, and looked at him. “Is it? Look! Is that it?”

Henry again followed her finger out his slowly opening window. Sitting at the end of the line was an SUV. It looked like it might’ve once been black, though it was nearly impossible to tell through the crust. It was more brown than anything now. It had a flat rear tire.

“Is that what?” he said.

“Your car?”

He looked at her. He looked at the car. He looked back at her. “Monica? I’m only going to ask you this once. Is this supposed to be funny?”

Monica was already out of the Impala. He watched in complete disbelief as she ran to the back of the SUV and tried to open the rear door.

“This can’t be real,” Henry muttered, “Has she lost her bloody mind?”

She wiped the grime away from the driver’s window and cupped her eyes to it. Then she looked back at him and wildly waved him over. “Look at this!”

Henry sighed. Then he got out of the car.

“Do you have a key?” she asked as he walked up.

“Are you serious, Monica? This model SUVs are all over the place. There’s probably a thousand within a two mile radius of us.”

“No,” she said, giggling, “This is it. Look, California license plate.”

The license plate was folded up so that only the state and a couple numbers showed. The bumper beneath it was pretty well mangled. “Oh yeah!” he said with faked enthusiasm, “California! Well, it must be mine, then.”

“How can we get it open?” She tried the door again.

He looked around at the misery surrounding them. “Why the hell would I ditch my car here? I don’t think I could get that drunk.”

“Do you have a key?” she asked again.

“No.” He walked up next to her and pressed his face into the spot she’d cleared on the driver’s window. The inside did look like his. There was a phone propped in the cup holder between the seats. Red, like his. And the wallet sitting next to it...

Henry staggered back from the window.

He suddenly felt unsteady, like he’d best grab onto something or gravity was going to divorce him. He threw his hand to his mouth. “No,” he whispered, “No… this is not possible. This is so not happening!”

Monica was laughing and dancing a circle in front of him. “I’m so freaking good!” she yelled to the sky, “Damn me, I am sooo goooooood!”

“I can’t believe this… I don’t believe this. This is a trick, isn’t it? It’s some kind of weird ass carny trick, isn’t it? How the hell’d you do this, Monica?”

“It’s no trick,” Monica practically sang, “Oh yeah, baby! I am the real deal!”

“Tell me how you did this,” Henry insisted, “Seriously! This is not funny anymore.”

“It’s not a trick, Henry!” she said, laughing like she’d just won the lottery.

“Damn it, Monica. This isn’t funny! How the hell did you do this?”

She rushed in and hugged him hard. Then she pushed him out to arms’ length but kept her hands latched to his shoulders. Her face was hysterically happy.

“Tell me, Monica!”

“You know how, Henry. You know exactly how this is possible, Mr. Skeptic! Woo hoo! Who’s brilliant? What? I can’t hear you! Who’s brilliant! Yes! That’s right! I’m brilliant! Monica Darkveil, Psychic Investigator!”

Henry pulled free of her. “I don’t believe this.” He knelt down behind the crumpled back bumper and felt underneath it. “Jesus Christ!” he yelled as he pulled out the magnetized box. He’d put it there months ago. He never thought he’d ever need it. It was the extra key.

“How good am I, Henry?” Monica screamed, “I can’t hear you? How freaking brilliant am I? I’m brilliant as hell, that’s how brilliant! I’m a goddess! I’m on top of the world, baby!”

He pressed the button on the key’s head. He felt the earth shake as the electric locks popped. For a moment, he could only stand there staring at his hand and the key and the dust marks where his knuckles had cleared the grime from the door. Then he carefully took the door handle and opened it.

The smell of fresh leather rushed past him. His stomach tickled excitedly. His car. This was his bloody car. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t even think. He had to actively will his gaping mouth shut.

He slipped cautiously into the driver’s seat. He picked up the wallet resting in one of the cup holders between his seat and the passenger’s. A glass sat in the other holder, half filled with what looked like stale bourbon. He laid his wallet against the steering wheel. He was afraid to open it. If it was truly his wallet, everything he knew and understood about the world, about the cosmos, was about to be cast asunder.

When he finally found the courage to unfold the wallet, he found his own face staring back at him from the driver’s license. It looked surprised to see him.


FIFTY EIGHT

HENRY STAGGERED INTO HIS KITCHEN.

He tossed the keys onto the counter. He tapped off a glass of water and drank the whole thing.

Then he turned around and leaned back against the granite counter. He stood there for a moment, wavering in and out of the world. He felt flimsy and insubstantial, like he could drift right through the walls. The condo appeared to be exactly as he’d left it a year earlier, and yet it seemed strangely unfamiliar. The layout was the same, and the colors were the same, and the furnishings and pictures looked the same, but somehow they weren’t the same at all. It felt as if someone had come in while he was gone and replaced all his things with nearly identical replicas, replicas that were somehow just one off.

He buried his eyes in the meat of his palms. He was numb to the core, and yet everything seemed to hurt. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept, really slept. Maybe he never had. Maybe he still was.

He dropped his hands to his thighs. The round kitchen table rested in the corner before him with four ladder-back chairs standing at attention around it. A glass-covered picture hung on the wall above the rear chair. It was the print of an old ship, and it was sailing away from him as fast as it could manage, choppy seas be damned.

A brown paper bag of unpacked groceries rested in the middle of the table, squatting like a cornered inmate beneath the prison yard floodlight of the hanging ceiling lamp. He walked over to it and pulled an item from the bag. It was an extra-large can of baked beans. Vegetarian.

Baked beans? Vegetarian? What the hell was he thinking? Just the urge to buy it alone should’ve been a warning shot across his bow, a sign that crisis was about to ensue. Then again, since he didn’t even remember visiting the supermarket, he probably wasn’t in a state of mind suited to psychoanalyzing his shopping decisions.

He drifted out of the kitchen, past the foyer, and across the dining room. He took a right turn in the living room and passed out through the still open slider to the balcony. The morning air was cool and about as fresh as it got in these parts. The highway traffic buzzed determinedly in the distance. The condo complex spread out below him like a prison compound. Nothing seemed to have changed. He went back inside, slid the door closed, and buried the sunlight behind the curtains.

He collapsed onto the couch facing the cloaked slider. Zoe and his Mother watched him from the mahogany shelf beneath the flat screen TV in the corner. They smiled at him from four separate frames, like two pairs of identical twins. Their faces seemed to waver in and out of their dimensions, a trick of the light and his exhaustion.

He rubbed his eyes. Why did everything seem so fluid this morning? Even the air had a metallic luster to it. Could it be because he hadn’t slept in years? Or that he couldn’t remember the last thing he ate? Or maybe it was simply the fact that he was lost in the eye of an emotional hurricane.

He dropped his hands to his lap and looked over at his Mothers. The Mother on the right moved just slightly.

Henry’s breath caught in his chest.

His Mother’s eyes darted up and over, looking hard up at the Zoe on the left. Then her eyes came back to him. She just barely shrugged her brow. She didn’t look happy.

“Jesus Christ,” Henry said, laughing, “Psychoses or exhaustion, pick your poison.”

His Mother smiled at that.

He looked at the indicated Zoe on the top left, then back at his Mother. His Mother had that Well? look on her face, the same expression that had always told him he needed to make a decision, and he’d best make it quick if he knew what was good for him.

He slid lower on the couch and rolled his neck against the harder edge of the cushions. When he looked back at the pictures again, his Mother was scowling at him. “Jesus, now what, Ma?” he whispered, “I’m way too tired for games.”

His Mother looked at him like he should know exactly what.

He closed his eyes. He was talking to a picture of his Mother. What a perfect ending to the psychotic episode these past days had been!

A few minutes later, he snapped forward. He’d nearly fallen asleep.

His Mother’s head was now turned in the frame. She glared over at the lower left Zoe, the directly next to her. For her part, Zoe wasn’t looking at anyone. Zoe was just smiling that self-possessed, condescending smile she seemed to have been born with.

Henry sighed. He hadn’t been home ten minutes and his ghosts were already on him. He pushed himself forward and leaned onto his elbows. His hands wrestled between his knees.

He looked from Zoe to his Mother. His Mother was giving him The Look.

“What the hell am I thinking?” he whispered, “This is insane.”

His Mother stared directly at him. She didn’t look anything like happy.

“Fuck it,” he whispered to her, “I’ve got to take a piss. You two fight it out while I’m gone.”

A few minutes later, he flushed and washed. Then he brushed his teeth, rinsed his toothbrush, and sucked up a mouthful of water. As he bent forward to spit it out, he noticed the mirror in the mirror. He could see his backside reflected from the full-length mirror on the door directly behind him. There was something black all over his uniform.

He pulled off his Superman shirt and turned it around. At first, he didn’t know what to make of it. It was a block of writing, except that it seemed to be in a foreign language. He had the feeling that if his mind weren’t so full of sludge, he’d be able to recognize it. It covered the entire upper back of his uniform.

And then it hit him. It was written in familiar block lettering with a distinct girlish flair. It was from Alice’s sharpie, and it was written backwards. She’d written it on the inside of the shirt and it’d bled through.

He fought away a laugh. He remembered Frank back at the campground telling him he had something on his back, right before Alice shoved him into the van. He remembered T telling him he had the code behind him. And that’s exactly what her writing looked like. Code.

He turned the shirt inside out.

It was a letter. It read:

Dearest Henry,

First, stop fretting. You’ve left nothing burning behind you, no wreckage, no bodies. You and I are golden. I adore you still.

Second, I hope somewhere along that winding road home you found your socks. Maybe even your belt. Possibly your car. Then again, just making it home safely might be enough to ask for.

Third, I hope you find the courage to bury your dead and move back into your life. Your life misses you. And why wouldn’t it?

Fourth, lastly, and most importantly, it was a brilliant year we shared. And if I’m so miserably unfortunate as to never see you again, I want you to know that this intersection of our lines was a grand and wonderful moment for me. I hope that someday you’ll find your way back to me and learn my last name. But mostly I just hope you find peace. You deserve to.

With deepest affection,

Alice ♥

Henry couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. He could only stand there staring at the shirt in his shaking hands. He felt like he’d been hit by a car.

He reread Alice’s note. Bury your dead. A grand and wonderful moment. Learn my last name.

Learn my last name.

Disappointment kicked him deep and hard.

He threw a hand to his face. God! He was such an idiot! He remembered their conversation on the two-track by the campground yesterday. Alice was right. She was so unbelievably right. He was self-centered and self-important to epic proportions. How could he have left her without even knowing her name? He should throw himself in front of a train! That was a Mensa level moment of stupidity.

He read the note again. No phone number. No email address. No clues. It was just as he deserved. He’d been so terminally focused on himself and his poor, pitiful woes that he’d never even bothered to consider that maybe, just maybe, he might one day want to contact her.

Idiot!

Fucking moron!

He read the note again.

Bury your dead.

His rage boiled up. Something clicked inside him, something cold and metallic, like the cock of a gun.

Bury your dead.

The temperature in the room plummeted. He was freezing. He began shivering so hard, his teeth clacked.

Bury. Your. Dead.

The ground turned to sludge beneath him. He wanted to scream! He wanted to murder! He wanted to burn the whole fucking town to the ground!

He slugged the bathroom wall. He slugged it again. And again. “You’re a fool!” he yelled into the mirror, “A goddamned child!” He smashed the mirror with his fist. Glass splinters sang merrily as they threw themselves to their deaths on the porcelain sink.

He stormed back into the living room. His Mother and Zoe still watched him from across the room. His Mother nodded and smiled. Zoe’s eyes simmered up at him, condemning his uselessness and demanding more of him in the same breath.

He flew out of his body. He saw himself flip the coffee table over. He watched the books and coasters fly, watched his laptop bounce across the carpeting. He heaved a lamp against the wall, and the explosion of glass was as gratifying as an orgasm. He grabbed an end table and heaved it into the slider. The glass shattered magnificently out onto the balcony. He knocked the couch on its back. He smashed a dining room chair against the wall. He smashed it again and again. He smashed it until there was nothing left in his hands but two homeless legs.

He heaved one of the legs across the room, then passed into the dining room. He flipped the dinner table on its back and kicked two of its legs away. He grabbed one table leg like a bat, then flew back into the living room. There, he swung away, knocking pictures from the wall and throwing shelves and tearing down the curtains. He spun around and threw the table leg at the flat screen. The leg struck the glass with a satisfying crunch before flipping away into the debris as the TV crashed backward into the corner.

He reveled in the glory of his destruction, fighting to breathe, fighting harder not to laugh. Then he spied the pictures of Mother and Zoe.

He froze at that.

His Mother looked back at him in mortified silence, but both Zoes watched him from their sanctimonious little frames parked there side-by-side so sweetly. They were studying him. The bitches were talking about him! They were discussing him as if he were some kind of psychotic experiment gone awry.

He lunged for them. He stole them and his Mothers into the kitchen. He set the four of them side-by-side on the island bar. His Mothers were smiling warmly. The Zoes looked concerned. They should be.

“I’m exhausted!” he screamed at the dead wives, “Do you hear me? I’m tired of killing myself over you. I deserve better, isn’t that right, Ma! It wasn’t my fault, was it? I didn’t kill her. Zoe killed herself!”

His Mother seemed to agree. She turned her head and looked back into the living room beyond the kitchen. Henry followed her gaze, and as he did he saw his dungeon. The forbidden cell door was wide open. The ghosts were loose. And in that instant, he realized he would never be free, not so long as she had reign over his life.

He ran back into the bedroom. He grabbed the picture of Zoe sitting on his nightstand. There were two more in the spare bedroom next door. He dug through the bottom drawer of her old vanity and pulled out her personal collection, the five she’d paid some hack to take of her back when she was breathing. The last one was in his office. It was the one taken of them after the affair, but before the suicide, the one where they were posing bullshit happy for the camera like a pathetic little sitcom couple.

The frames landed in a disorderly heap on the bar counter in the kitchen beside his Mother and the other two Zoes. He couldn’t breathe. His exhilaration was nearly incapacitating. He heard his Mother whisper her satisfaction to him. He looked at her and smiled.

Then he picked up the living room pictures of Zoe. Her eyes were as sharp and accusing as they’d been in life. She was always correcting him, always trying to fix him, always trying to make him meet her unrealistic standards. We’ll get you a new stylist so you won’t look like a frat boy anymore, Henry. We’ll get you a new wardrobe so you’ll finally look like a professional, Henry. We’ll get your teeth straightened so I can present you to my friends, Henry!

He closed his eyes and dragged an arm across his mouth. He was shaking too hard. He felt sick to his stomach. It seemed like he was always sick to his stomach. A dozen Zoes sneered up at him from the pile on the counter. They all had the same look she wore in the dream, the same condescending, judgmental look that told him he wasn’t good enough, that he’d never be good enough, that he’d never be able to sing for her!

“Bury your dead, Henry,” his Mother said.

Henry startled at the voice. He looked over at her.

His Mother smiled sweetly from her frame. “Bury your dead, dear,” she whispered, “It’s time.”

Henry looked at the Zoes in each of his hands. He looked at her face, at her lips, at her dark eyes. “I loved you, Zoe,” he whispered.

“Bury your dead, Henry,” his Mother urged.

He suddenly felt unsure. “I… I can’t. I…”

“You don’t deserve this, Henry,” his Mother said, “You don’t deserve this prison. Bury your dead, dear.”

“I can’t!” he whispered, “I… I don’t know how! I can’t—”

“Henry!” his Mother shrieked, “Bury your fucking dead!”

“All right!” he screamed back, “All right! All right!”

He smashed Zoe’s pictures against the corner edge of the bar. The glass shattered, the frames twisted. He clawed her picture out of the remains. An ugly tear seared through her right eye and down her cheek. He threw the photos into the sink and tossed the frames to the floor.

He grabbed the next frame and smashed it against the counter. The splintering glass fell away like redemption. He dug the picture out and threw it in the sink, then dropped the broken frame to the ground. He took the next and did it again, and again. The glass was everywhere, sharp and jagged and covered in red. It shimmered like the eyes of angels.

He threw the last photo into the sink and heaved the broken frame against the far wall. The glass exploded in a shower of sparkles like the climax of a symphony.

Then he looked down at his Mother. “Yeah?” he yelled at her, “It’s good? Right, Ma? It’s all good!”

His Mother’s smile was breathtaking.

Henry threw open the pantry doors and seized the charcoal fluid and a box of kitchen matches from the top shelf. He sprayed the fluid over the bodies in the sink, then he backed away and carefully lit a match. He studied that glorious flame dancing at his bloody fingertips for just a moment, just long enough to sear it into his memory. Then he dropped it into the sink.

The eruption of the fire felt like a baptism. The heat felt like the devil’s breath on his face. He waved his hand back and forth through the flames. He could smell his blood smoking in the heat. He felt like he was walking on water, like he was dancing at a murder.

The smoke alarm went off. He grabbed the can of vegetarian baked beans and heaved it. The alarm exploded. Plastic littered the floor. The can hit the ground with the finality of a cell door closing.

And then silence filled the room.

Henry could only stand there, barely breathing, but fully alive. He trembled as he watched the faces twist and shrivel in the flames, as the black smoke boiled across the ceiling. He felt ecstatic.

The floor was carpeted in glass. The room was painted gloriously red. He felt like the villagers were finally at the castle with their torches and pitchforks, and at long last the monster was burning on the bridge.

He backed away as the flames slowly died. Glass crackled sickeningly under his shoes. His hands were starting to hurt. He lifted them, but couldn’t see any damage through the blood. He looked over at his Mother, but she was gone. She’d left him to his victory. There was only a photo remaining of her now. A very old photo of a dead woman posing a forced smile.

He stumbled out of the kitchen and through the debris field that had been the dining room. He grabbed his uniform from the fallen couch, then staggered back into the bedroom where he began systematically tearing the room apart.


FIFTY NINE

HENRY OPENED HIS EYES.

At first, he wasn’t sure where he was. The door was closed, the blinds shut, the room clouded in half-hearted darkness. He looked over at the clock. The numbers 1:54 glowed on his bed stand. They sizzled in that familiar hellfire red that told him he must be back in his cell.

His mind felt as dull as a hammer. His hands hurt. He looked at the window above the bed. Sunlight burned a line along the bottom of the blinds. It was middle afternoon. He wondered what day it was. How long had been sleeping? He wondered why it mattered.

It took him a moment to make the decision to move. He pushed himself up to the bedside. The motion sent a sorry cry of pain through his hands.

The bedroom was in ruins. He’d been sleeping between two mangled dresser drawers. Still, he was pleasantly surprised to find he was wearing his uniform, though in the shadows it looked dirty, like it was covered in mud. He ran a hand across the seam in his S and tried to remember when he’d put it back on, but that memory was lost to the vapors. He wondered what Alice was doing right now. Probably soaking in a hot spring with her family and counting her lucky stars. Goddamn, Nancy, wasn’t that a close one?

After a bit, he found the strength to stand up. His feet found his slippers parked neatly at the bedside. He stumbled into the bathroom.

The mirror was a kaleidoscope of noses and rusty skin and eyes looking back at him from a hundred different stations in the ivory sink. He turned around to the door mirror. His hands and forearms were caked in dried blood. His uniform was blotted in it. His face was monstrous.

He felt his way down the hall. The condo looked like it’d been looted. The corpse of his couch lay on its back at the end of the corridor. He used the bottom of the couch to steady himself as he worked his way toward the crime scene. As he moved deeper into the apartment, the memories began materializing from the darkness like ghouls climbing up from their graves.

The living room was a portrait of carnage. The drapes over the slider fluttered slightly in the breeze admitted by the fractured pane. Jagged remnants of the slider littered the carpet. The dining room walls were gashed and mangled. A bit of a dining room chair still stuck out of one of the wounds. The crippled table was missing a leg. One chair had lost them all. He wondered how it was that no one called the law. The noise of his deconstruction must have been deafening.

He crept into the kitchen. Broken frames littered the floor. The picture of his Mother stood defiantly on the bar counter, the sole survivor of the carnage. Her expression was placid and indifferent in the way of the peacefully dead.

He walked up to the murder scene and flipped on the light switch over the sink. The room smelled like gas and moldering ash. The wall above the sink was fogged in soot. He looked down into the sink with the same trepidation he’d felt when he’d been forced to identify Zoe’s body. It wasn’t any less mortifying. Zoe’s remains were everywhere… an eye here, a bit of mouth there, pieces of shoulder or scarf, all seared and mutilated nearly beyond recognition.

The smell of funeral flowers filled the room.

Henry brought his hand to his mouth. The heat boiled up behind his eyes. He heard himself release a little gag. The counter was all that kept him from falling. He was going to vomit. God, he was going to throw up.

But the dark voice rose up to rescue him. The doubting voice. The one that insisted he might still be sane. How much time did you waste on Zoe? How many years have you been the walking dead because of her? How many years have you been a slave to her dysfunction?

Too many, goddamn you!

Too fucking many!

The thought gave him strength. He could see it now, see it as clearly as he saw her remains. He’d been a victim to her just as surely as she had been to him.

But now, for the first time in memory, now he really wanted to be free. Now he wanted to live again, and that revelation felt like a parole. The air gradually returned to the room, the nausea faded, the walls receded. He laughed and dragged the tears away from his eyes. It was all so funny. He couldn’t stop laughing. He was ready. He was finally, finally ready.

He retrieved his pants from the bedroom and rifled through the pockets as he picked his way through the battlefield and back to the kitchen. Even the pain of his lacerated hands didn’t slow him down. He pulled out a business card and laid it carefully on the counter in front of his Mother.

Monica Darkveil

Psychic Counselor

Sometimes talking just isn’t enough

He pulled out a second card and laid it directly beneath the first.

Reverend Joshua G. Grandhart

Sacred Weeping Heart of Jesus Ministries

Saving Souls Since 2003

The third card was more mangled than the first two. The edges were frayed and the letters faded like it’d gone through the wash. He didn’t recognize it. It read:

Jerry’s Service and Towing

Despegar, Arizona

760-733-5...

He flipped Jerry’s card over. Handwritten on the back were Henry’s name and the make, model, and license plate number of his SUV. He couldn’t remember where he’d gotten it, but he had a fairly damned good idea. It had to have been in one of his pants pockets. Monica must’ve pulled it from his pocket as he slept. It had to be how she knew about his car.

He put the card down with the others, then he dug back into his pocket and found the one he wanted most. He placed it carefully beneath Jerry’s.

Ximena J. Pena, MSW.

Social Worker

New Mexico Human Services Department

(505) 242-4...

He ran a finger over Mrs. Pena’s name. It left a red smear. He struggled to guide himself toward a decision. What would he say if he called her? Hell, what could she do if even he did manage to find the balls to make the call? Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe it was just…

He suddenly remembered her holding his hand. He remembered her words as clearly as if she’d only just said them to him: When you’re ready to kill the beast chasing you, you call me. I’ll help you find the support you need.

Kill the beast.

He picked up his cell phone and pressed the five. His finger stung with the effort. He pushed the zero with a different finger. The pain sizzled. Five. The pain was starting to feel good. Two. The pain grounded him. Four. Two…

He lifted the phone to his ear and waited. Much to his horror, her end of the line actually started ringing.

Four rings. Please don’t answer. Five. Maybe she wasn’t there. Six. Please, God, let it go to her voicem—

“This is Ximena Pena. How may I help you?”

Henry froze. Her voice sounded tinny and unreal, like it came from an old radio in another room.

“Hello?” she said again, “This is Mrs. Pena. May I help you?”

“I’m… uh…” His mouth went dry. His throat and eyes were on fire. Why was he doing this?

“Who is this, please?”

Her tone was daunting and intimidating. Henry steadied himself.

“This is… it’s, uh… it’s me, Mrs. Pena. It’s…”

“Henry?”

Henry felt the floor open beneath him. He was seized with an all too familiar urge to run.

“Henry, is that you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he heard himself say.

“Henry, where are you? Did you make it home?”

“Yes, ma’am. I… I did.”

“Oh my Lord, I’m so relieved to hear that.”

She sounded like she meant it.

“Thank you, ma’am. I didn’t mean to worry—”

“Henry, are you safe?”

“I’m… I’m sorry?” He felt confused. What could he say? Hell no, I’m a long fucking way from safe? I’m a half bottle of bourbon away from putting a bullet in my head? He couldn’t say it. He didn’t—

“You don’t sound well, Henry. I need to know that you’re safe.”

What was safe? He had no basis for such a concept. Then Alice’s smile beamed through his mind, and it gave him strength.

“Henry? Do I need to call nine-one-one?”

Henry dragged the tears back from his eyes. “No, ma’am,” he said, “I’m safe.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’m sure. I think I’m… I’m good, actually.”

Mrs. Pena didn’t respond. He could hear her waiting.

He felt something like strength shove him forward. “I’ve… I’ve, uh… I’ve thought a lot about…”

“Yes, Henry,” she said calmly.

“About, uh… about our… our conversation the other night.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Henry. And what conclusions have you drawn?”

He laughed.

“Am I entertaining you, Henry?” she said.

He blotted his eyes with the back of his hand. “No, ma’am,” he whispered, “Never. You just make me feel good.”

He heard her smiling. “How can I help you, Henry?”

“I’m ready to go back, Mrs. Pena.”

“Back?”

“Back to my life. I think I’ve been down in this hole long enough.”

“That’s very good, Henry.”

“But… I’m not sure how to begin. I think I need to talk to someone… I guess.”

“I’ll get some numbers for you. Some referrals.”

“I was hoping it could be you, Mrs. Pena.”

“I’m not a therapist, Henry. I’ll contact some colleagues and get some names for you. Would you prefer public—”

“Wait! No! No, please. I trust you, Mrs. Pena. I’m not good with—”

“I’m not a therapist, Henry. If you do trust me, you’ll believe that I’m sending you down the proper road, okay?”

He thought about it. He did believe her. “Okay,” he said.

There was a pause. Then she said, “Henry? I’ll make you a compromise, all right?”

He fought the tears again. He couldn’t let them out. Not now. “Yes, ma’am,” he barely whispered.

“I’ll call you every week and see how you’re doing.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He was losing the battle. His eyes were on fire.

“We’ll talk every week, rain or shine. Once you set up therapy, we’ll pick a scheduled time, and I’ll call you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And my phone is always open to you. You can call me anytime you want to. Do you understand? Anytime.”

He couldn’t fight his relief any longer. He began to sob. He’d never felt so relieved or so safe in his life. “Y-Yes, ma’am,” he forced through the tears, “Thank you. I… I can’t thank you enough for… for…”

“Good.” She went quiet for a bit. He heard her tapping into a computer. “Let’s see… I’ve got your phone number. What’s your address?”

He couldn’t speak through his crying.

“Take your time, Henry.”

His chest wracked with sobs. He couldn’t stop it, couldn’t get his breath.

“It’s okay, Henry. You just take as much time as you need.”

Eventually, the storm eased enough that he could draw a full breath. “I’m okay,” he whispered to her, “I… I’m okay.”

“Good. What’s your address, dear?”

He gave it to her.

“Email?” she said.

Again, he gave it to her.

“Excellent,” she said, “I’ll email you a few names and numbers.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t waste energy worrying, Henry. We’ll get you straightened out.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m always here for you, Henry. I’m only a phone call away.”

“I know.”

“I mean it. You can trust me, Henry.”

“I know. I do.” He did.


SIXTY

HENRY LOOKED OVER AT THE SHELL OF THE ABANDONED OLD STUCCO GARAGE.

It was completely unchanged, still boasting the blown out windows, still wearing the words County Jail spray-painted comically above the door. Yet, it somehow seemed funnier this time around.

He turned his SUV into the gas station parking lot. The gravel crackled reassuringly beneath his tires as he crept toward the pumps. The restroom where he’d landed during his Epic Outing stared at him from the side of the station. It was barricaded behind a dull white windowless door with a half-circle shadow of smudges around the handle where a century of drunks had passed through. He turned his eyes away from it. He couldn’t linger there. It wasn’t a place he wanted to go back to.

He pulled toward the bar with the suspiciously country-western motif. A few cars squatted in the sun outside. He suspected they were the same ones he’d seen there on his first visit.

He parked his car. He took off his sunglasses and threw them onto the passenger seat. It was time to get out, time to finish what he’d been waiting months to do, time to finish paying his dues, to be freed so that he could finally move on with his life.

So why was he just sitting there?

Closure waited beyond that door leading into the bar. Maybe finishing this would mean cutting the rope. Maybe it’d mean starting that new book. Maybe he was just feeling nostalgic.

He drew a steadying breath and hooked the door latch. He put a foot out, paused to steady himself, then he climbed out into the oppressive New Mexican heat. He shaded his eyes and peered around. The world was as wide and open as his last visit, though it might’ve been just a bit rockier and just a little more desolate. But this time he found the subtle desert colors appealing, maybe even reassuring. It was actually pretty scenic in its own way.

He climbed the steps to the bar. His watch said nine forty-five. There was a black velvet rose taped to the window on the door of the bar that he didn’t remember from his last visit. Of course, considering he had metallic vision last time, he wasn’t surprised to have possibly missed a detail or two. He opened the door and went inside.

Much to his delight, his usual spot at the bar was open. He crossed slowly to the stool, paused for just a moment, then sat down and looked around. Same fossilized rings, same cigarette smoke fogging the room. The chains supporting the wagon wheel ceiling-lamp were every bit as dusty as he remembered them. The two ghouls still hovered around the old pool table in the back, still hunched over their pool sticks, still with dying cigarettes locked in their lips.

A woman moseyed toward him from the other side of the bar. She looked to be in her young fifties and wore straw cowboy hat over a ponytail that could only look good on her. She had a girlish frame and a wrangler’s walk. She rolled a welcoming cocktail napkin out before him.

“What do you need, cowboy?” she said.

She said cowboy like it was two words. He had a feeling she was insulting him. Her eyes were gray and biting, and clearly had no patience for bullshit. Still, she wasn’t unappealing. She had a face whose prettiness was growing tired, though it still held the shadows of its former glory.

“You awake there, cowboy?” she pressed, “You want a drink or you just looking?”

Henry smiled at her. “A drink?” he said, “It’s not even ten in the morning.”

She shrugged. “You’re the one on the barstool.”

“I’ve been called a lot of things in my life,” he said, smiling at her, “Cowboy has never been one of them.”

“That right?” She said it like she didn’t actually care.

He nodded toward the bar. “Got any coffee?”

“After a fashion, I expect.”

“Can I get it to go?”

“You can have it in a champagne flute for all I care.”

“You don’t dance around a point much, do you?” He liked her.

“Don’t see the sense in it. You want fake milk and sugar in that?”

“No. Black. Please.”

She shrugged her brow. “It’s your stomach.”

He watched her head toward the back. There was no sign of Clarence, but he noticed there was a framed picture of him sitting up over the cash register. He looked younger in the photo, maybe because his eyes were still swimming above crease level. It didn’t look like he was on the job today. He probably wasn’t in the back, either. Three patrons hardly justified two bartenders.

The woman returned and set a squat styrofoam cup of coffee down in front of him. “We’re out of lids, so show some caution.”

“Sure. Thanks.”

“Can I get you anything else?” she said.

Henry shook his head. “Not that I can think.”

“Good, ‘cause we don’t really have anything else.”

He laughed at that. As she started to turn away, he said, “Wait, there is one thing.”

She looked back at him without any promise that she might actually turn around. “What’s that?”

“I’m looking for Clarence.”

She gave him a queer look. “Clarence? What do you want with Clarence?”

That irritated him a bit. “I want to talk to him.”

“What about?” She faced him now.

He studied her studying him. It was a weird moment. He wasn’t sure how to approach the impasse. He settled for, “I’m not sure how that’s any of your business. No offense intended.”

Her eyes bored into him a moment longer than was comfortable. Then she shrugged and turned away. “None taken. He’s not here.”

“Wait!”

She froze.

“Look, I need to talk to him. I mean… I really need to talk to him. It’s important. I owe him something. Please.”

She came back to him. “What do you owe him?”

He thought about it a moment. It was none of her damned business, but he had the sour feeling he wouldn’t get another chance if he pointed that out. Seeing Clarence was more important than his pride.

“I owe him an apology,” he said with some difficulty.

“An apology?” She leaned forward on her elbows just as Clarence had done. She grinned at him like she secretly knew he was a nut job and was just stalling him along for the entertainment. “An apology for what?”

Henry drew a breath and steadied his anger. “Please,” he said carefully, “I don’t know you, and I sincerely do not want to insult you. So if you could just tell me how to reach Clarence so I can give him what I owe him, or just tell me when he’s working again, I’d appreciate it more than I can say.”

“When was the last time you saw Clarence?”

He had a bad feeling about the way she asked it. “I’m not sure,” he said, “Something like three and a half months ago. Maybe four. Hell, maybe six, it doesn’t really matter.”

She continued to study him. He could practically feel the heat of her gaze. “What’d you say you had to apologize for?”

What was it with her? Was she, the county interrogator or what? He took a sip of the coffee. It tasted like hot crankcase oil. He practically sprayed it across the bar. “Phew, you weren’t kidding about the coffee.”

She actually grinned at that. “Yeah, it’s a specialty. Gotta let it cook a few days to get that kind of flavor.”

“Can I get a glass of water? Please?”

She laughed as she obliged him. “Here you go, cowboy.”

He drew a deep draught off the water. It didn’t help much. “Where do you grow that stuff, anyway?” he asked her as he waited for the foul taste to subside, “I think I just lost a couple years off my life.”

She again leaned forward onto the bar, only this time she grinned at him. “Son, California is one hell of a long way from here. For the life of me, I can’t imagine how you ever came to owe Clarence something like an apology. Not with that kind of distance.”

“How did you know I’m…” He stopped. Clarence had identified the same thing in him. He laughed.

“Wasn’t that funny, cowboy.”

“It is to me. Clarence told me the same thing. About California, I mean. He spotted it the moment I opened my mouth.”

“Knowing Uncle Clarence, he probably spotted it before you even opened the door.”

Uncle? He suddenly understood. She wasn’t trying to be difficult. She was trying to protect Clarence.

“Listen,” he said, “Clarence helped me out a ways back. He made me see something about myself that… well, it doesn’t much matter. I just want to apologize, that’s all. And thank him.”

She flashed a real smile at that. Her eyes looked wet. “Yep, I’d say that sure sounds like Uncle Clarence.”

Henry just nodded. And waited. He wasn’t sure what else to do.

Eventually, she stood up straight, though her fingers loitered at the back edge of the bar. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” she said straight at him, “Uncle Clarence is dead.”

Henry felt the ground move. “He… he died?” The words sounded unreal, like maybe he hadn’t heard them right. “He’s dead?” he said again.

She swiped her eyes. “Yeah, couple days ago.”

He felt a rush of grief as intense as if he’d known the man all his life. “No,” he whispered, “No, I can’t believe it.”

She was crying now. Henry handed her his cocktail napkin. She accepted it with a little nod. “He’d been sick,” she said as she wiped her nose, “It’d been coming on a while. Wasn’t any kind of surprise.”

“I’m really sorry.” His own eyes ran hot. The tears came on so fast it startled him.

“Everyone around these parts loved that man,” she said, “The old guy was damned near a hundred. Lived here in Defiance his whole life.”

“I’m two days too late,” he whispered. He thought about what Beth had said back at the campground: You can’t refill a clock. This was a sorry lesson learned.

“Don’t beat yourself up on it,” she said, “Clarence surely knew what he was doing when he did it. He wouldn’t expect an apology. Or a thank you. Then again, I know what you mean. You want to apologize, and it doesn’t feel right not to get to it. But the thought’s what matters most, I expect.”

“No. It isn’t,” he said too sharply, “No offense, but the thought doesn’t mean shit. Not in this case. In this case, it’s the deed that matters. I have to tell him. I need to rectify some of the damage I’ve left behind me.”

She looked at him for a long moment. He could see some kind of debate going on behind those gray eyes.

“You got a tie?” she said suddenly.

“I’m sorry?”

“You got a tie in that SUV out there? Maybe a clean jacket?”

He looked out through the grimy window at the hazy image of his car. Then he looked back at her. “Yeah, I’ve got a suit, actually.” A sorry habit left over from his days as a professional.

She turned back to the register. A moment later, she returned with another napkin and a black Sharpie. As she wrote, she said, “Cole’s Funeral Home. It’s just down the road a piece in Gallup. They aren’t burying him until tomorrow.” She pushed the napkin toward him. “Anyone questions why you’re there, you tell them Little Cloris sent you. Got that? Little Cloris. That’s me.”

He picked up the napkin. Little Cloris. That had to be an interesting story. He looked up at her. “Thank you, Little Cloris.”

She scowled at that. “You realize ‘Little’ isn’t actually part of my name, right?”

Henry felt himself blush. “Sorry,” he said, laughing nervously, “It just came out on—”

“Forget it.”

Henry nodded. “Thank you. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”

“You seem like a guy who has to see this through,” she said, “Guess I can understand that kind of need.”

He smiled back. He knew exactly what was coming next.

“Got me a sense about folks,” she said, smiling, “You seem like a guy that’s got some demons to kill. I expect Uncle Clarence probably saw the same thing.”

Henry dug for his wallet. “You have no idea, Cloris.” He sifted through his bills.

Cloris put a hand on his. “It’s on the house,” she said smiling at him, “Besides, if you pay for it you’ll probably just end up suing me for poisoning you. Can’t sue for a gift.”

“Thanks.”

She nodded her cowboy hat toward the rear of the bar. “Get your gear,” she said, “Got a bathroom in the back. You can freshen up a bit and change clothes there if you like.”

He remembered Clarence telling him something similar. The memory brought hope.


SIXTY ONE

HENRY THOUGHT CLARENCE LOOKED PRETTY GOOD.

He wasn’t quite so Stan Laurel with his hair combed and wearing a suit and tie. Of course, he expected that being dead softened the effect a bit, as well.

He stood over the coffin and wondered how to begin. He wondered if there was even any point in starting. What good would it do now, anyway? The man was dead. He doubted he could hear anything.

But he immediately recognized his reflexive dodge-and-evade defenses. Old habits are hard to break. The fact was he’d come here with a purpose, and for once in his pathetic life he was going to see it through. He owed the man. And he owed himself.

“Hey, Clarence,” he whispered to the corpse, “How’s it going?”

He winced at that. How’s it going? Seriously? The man’s dead, fool!

He regrouped and began again. “Look,” he whispered, “This isn’t easy for me, being an asshole at heart and all, but I’m going to give it my best. You were a good man. I wasn’t. I’m probably still not, but… I’m working on it. You were better to me than I deserved, and I’m… well, I’m here to thank you.”

“How did you know Dr. Carson?”

Henry nearly jumped out of his suit.

A tuft of white hair stood beside him. It was an old woman wearing a brilliant white dress covered in the happiest green and yellow flowers he’d ever seen. Her lipstick was as red as a fire truck and spread just a fashionable smidge further than the line of her lips, though it’d be hard to tell through all those wrinkles. Bright as she was, she looked as out of place in a funeral home as a sunflower in a bog.

She smiled patiently at him. She was clearly waiting.

“I’m… I’m sorry?” Henry asked softly.

“I asked how you knew Dr. Carson, dear.”

“I don’t understand. Dr. Carson?” He wondered if she meant her doctor. Maybe she’d wandered away from a nearby nursing home. He glanced around for the orderlies.

“Yes,” she said, “Dr. Carson. Did you know him? Or are you one of those odd fellows who take peculiar delight in visiting funerals of folks they’ve never met? I recall seeing an old movie along that line.”

“What? No!”

She had a sweet smile that swam through her wrinkles with the determination of a swan in a mud hole. Her eyes were green and looked like some of their luster may have faded over time, but they still held every ounce of their intensity. He was perfectly disarmed by her.

She placed her tiny hand against his chest like she was checking for a heartbeat. “Son,” she said most politely, “Are you all right?”

He realized she was thinking the same thing about him that he was of her. That he was nuts. He resisted the urge to laugh.

“Clarence,” he said, “You’re asking how I knew Clarence.”

“Of course. Did you think I meant the gardener?”

He laughed too loud at that, then quickly glanced around to see if anyone noticed. “No,” he said, looking back at her, “No, of course not. I just thought… I mean I didn’t know Clarence’s last name. And I especially didn’t realize he was a doctor.”

“No?”

“No. It never would’ve occurred to me.” He winced at that. It came off crudely, though he meant nothing like that. “I only meant I didn’t know Clarence very well. We only met one time.”

She seemed to understand. “Of course. You didn’t know he was a doctor. Clarence would’ve been mortified if anyone who’d only just met him suspected him to be someone from so low a class of profession.”

“Well, he worked in a bar. It’s not exactly a giveaway.”

“He owned the bar. He worked there because he loved it.”

Henry felt another moment’s embarrassment. “I have no doubt,” he said, “He was an excellent bartender.”

“You should probably sit with me a moment, dear,” she said as she took his elbow.

She guided him to an empty row of seats that were cordoned off for family. There weren’t many seats left; the place was packed with black dresses, dark suits, and grim expressions.

“So… he hadn’t practiced in some time, I’m guessing,” he said as they sat. She still had a hold on his arm, though her hands had slipped down to his forearm.

“Practiced?” She clucked at that. “My dear, he wasn’t a doctor of medicine.”

“No?”

“No, dear. He was a doctor of philosophy?”

“Philosophy?”

“Yes, dear.”

“He wasn’t a bartender?” he said.

“Well, he was that, too. The professions do seem like sister vocations, wouldn’t you say?”

“I suppose.”

“There’s not much call for philosophers in the job market these days. Not outside universities. Truth is, in these modern times, I don’t think there’s much call for them at all.”

“Meaning no offense, ma’am,” Henry said, “But Clarence didn’t exactly sound like a doctor, philosophy or otherwise.”

She laughed at that, but quickly threw her hanky to her mouth and looked back over her shoulder. When it seemed the coast was clear, she leaned into Henry. “I must endeavor to act more reserved,” she whispered, “I’ve only today learned that it’s apparently against the rules to laugh at a funeral.”

“I’ve heard that,” he whispered back, “Then again, rules are just guidelines, right? Handy suggestions?”

She laughed again, and again she smothered her mouth with her hanky as she nodded enthusiastically.

“Clarence definitely had that whole Country Scholar thing going down, though,” Henry said, “I should’ve figured it out.”

“Clarence had a curious habit with strangers,” she whispered, “If he desired to put them off guard, he’d take care to, well… dumb down his speech, so to speak.” She winked at him.

Henry couldn’t believe how wrong he’d been about the man. He realized in that moment just how biased and closed-minded he’d become. He’d made stupid assumptions that had severely disserviced this man. He’d injured him even more deeply than he’d thought. He’d never felt so much the fool before, and feeling the fool was something he had vast experience with.

“Are you all right, dear?”

“My name’s Henry,” he said taking her hand, “Henry Smith. I met Clarence at the bar.”

“It’s a pleasure, Henry. I’m Cloris Carson. My family calls me Big Cloris, but you can just call me Clo.”

Henry realized he’d just been let in on a little Carson family secret. “Big Cloris,” he repeated, “That’s funny.”

“I know,” she said, “It’s ironic. I’m a heaping five feet plus one in heels.”

“I met Little Cloris at the bar before coming here. I was there looking for Clarence. I’m guessing you’re Mrs. Clarence.”

She smiled. Her tiny eyes misted, but she proficiently repressed the tears. She looked like she’d had a lot of experience with grief. “Yes, Henry. Clarence and I were married for seventy-four years.”

“Holy sh… I mean, that’s incredible.”

“Well, that’s exactly right, isn’t it?” She took his hands and leaned into him. “I can’t tell you how tired I’m of all the grief and lilies and somber faces. Everyone keeps wetting my dress with their unrequested tears and telling me how sorry they are. For the love of God, we shared seventy-four years together. Seventy-four years, Henry! How many people leave their lives with so much happiness to boast of?”

“Not many, I’m pretty sure.”

“Not many, indeed. This should be a time of celebration and fond memories.” She glanced about and then leaned closer. “Which is precisely why I refused to wear black,” she whispered, “Much to the chagrin of most of my family. Then again, most of them think I’m a coin shy of a purse anyway, so who cares?”

Henry slipped his arm around her. “You stay strong to your principles,” he whispered back, “You outrank everyone here. Hell, most of these people haven’t lived long enough to call what they have a ‘life’ to begin with.”

“Thank you, Henry. You’ve validated my beliefs.”

“Well, I know something about life.”

He looked over at Clarence. Was he smiling?

“And regrets,” he added, looking down at her, “Mostly with regrets, I guess.”

“I can see that,” she whispered back, “You seem like a man who’s just climbed up out of the trenches.”

“You have no idea.”

She smiled.

“Clarence offered me a hand when I needed it,” he said carefully, “Not that I deserved it. Or even understood it at the time. But that doesn’t matter.”

“I know, dear. Clarence mentioned you to me.”

He looked down at her smiling up at him. “I’m sorry?”

“Clarence mentioned you, dear. It was several months ago. He told me about a troubled young man he’d met who was just at the cusp of a life-altering journey.”

“A life-altering journey,” Henry repeated.

“He told me the boy’s name was Henry, and that this boy was from California, though he didn’t hold it against him. He said the boy had only just started down a road, and that taking said road would ultimately lead to either his freedom or his death. He considered it a glorious journey.”

Henry stared at her. He felt shocked, dumbfounded. He wondered for just an instant if he was even awake. Either she was making this all up, or Clarence had been a seer in life.

“You look surprised, dear.”

He searched for something to say that could do justice to his shock. It was overwhelming in its profundity. “I… I seriously don’t know how to respond to that. I mean, he knew me for like thirty minutes, then he practically writes my biography? Phew, that’s a hard one to get my head around.”

“He was a deeply insightful man,” she said. Then she leaned closer and whispered, “And he was rooting for your salvation, if that helps.”

Henry didn’t think there was any response that would possibly do that statement justice.

“Don’t look so troubled, Henry,” Cloris said as she patted his hand, “Clarence had a sense about people. He figured you’d be coming back. Assuming you survived, that is. He said your odyssey was going to be similar to the peyote journeys he’d made with his Apache friends in the early seventies.”

Henry nearly gasped. “Peyote?”

She again patted his hand. “Don’t judge, dear. The point is that he was certain you’d experience your own visions, that you’d face your ghosts and come to certain terms with them, for better or for worse.”

 “I treated him poorly,” Henry whispered, “I ridiculed him. I provoked him. I served him the precise opposite of the respect he showed me. And in spite of that, he still tried to help me.”

“Tried?”

He looked at her, and then he understood. “You’re right,” he said, “He did help me. I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t. He and a couple others I met on that weekend. Each one of them gave me a piece of themselves to take away with me, like bricks to add to my defenses.”

“And you’re here to apologize to him.”

“Yes.”

“Land sakes, child,” she said on a tiny laugh, “You needn’t worry yourself further about that. He never expected an apology, and he surely didn’t want thanks. It was simply Clarence’s way. He felt we were all in this mess together, and because of that we were obliged to help one another out of it when such opportunities presented.

Henry thought about that. It felt like Clarence was sitting right here with them, like Cloris was channeling him and offering forgiveness by proxy.

“Feeling better, dear?” Cloris said, smiling those ruby red lips up at him. She still had a firm clasp on his hands.

“Yes, ma’am. I do. Thank you.”

“Then best you’d get going. You have folks waiting on you, after all. And a funeral home is no place for a man in search of a woman.”

His eyes boiled up at that. He looked at her. “What? How did—”

She pulled him to his feet. “Go finish your journey, Henry. You’re carrying a little bit of Clarence with you now. Take some comfort in that.”

He could only look at her, at this waif of a woman. He felt a hundred pounds lighter than when he’d walked in. Despite the odds against it, maybe this was all working out. Maybe he was finally flowing with the natural current of his life. He was sure as hell tired of swimming against it.

“Thank you, Cloris,” he said, wiping a hand over his eyes, “And you keep wearing your colors. I’m sure it’s what Clarence would’ve wanted. And after seventy-four years, who else do you need to please?”

“You know I will, dear.”

She hugged him with more force and determination than a woman a quarter her age or twice her size. And he was truly sorry when she finally let him go.


SIXTY TWO

HENRY WONDERED IF HE’D STILL RECOGNIZE MRS. PENA.

He looked around the restaurant. It was milling with professional women. Many were of the same age, complexion, and hair color as her. He had a solid image of her in his mind, but what if it’d been distorted by time and distance? His confidence had taken its leave.

The waiter refilled his water glass. “Can I get you something else to drink, sir?” he said, “An appetizer, perhaps?”

“That’s the third time you’ve asked me,” Henry said, scowling up at him, “What have I done to make you think I’ve changed my mind in the last seven minutes? Did I send you some signal that I’m not aware of? Give you a look? A secret sign, maybe?”

“No, sir,” the waiter as said matter-of-factly as if Henry had asked him the time, “I’m simply trying to keep up to date with your needs.”

“Forget it. I’m just… I’m fine.” Henry looked down at his wrestling hands.

“How about if I wait for you to flag me when you’re ready?” the waiter said, “Or until your date shows up.” He said it like he didn’t have much faith she would.

Henry watched him walk away. He was suddenly and convincingly ashamed of himself. He’d treated the man like he was a piece of shit stuck to the bottom of his shoe. Why had he felt the need to punish him? Idiot! Have you learned nothing in these last months? You’re truly an asshole, and you deserve whatever misfortune finds you.

Mrs. Pena spared him further self-abuse.

She walked in through the front door of the café as confidently as if she owned the place. He was a little disappointed in the lack of fanfare announcing her arrival.

She scoured the room with her targeting system. It only took her seconds to lock in on him. He wasn’t surprised by the chill he felt when she caught his eye. Even after their endless talks, even though he now considered her a true friend, she was still the alpha dog, still inspired a little shock and awe in him.

She looked exactly as she had the last time he’d seen her. Same hair, same white purse, same laser eyes. The only difference was her pantsuit. This one was black. He wondered if that bode well or ill. He stood as she approached. She quickened her pace, and as she came up to him her face threw off its shackles and broke into a full-bore smile.

“Henry,” she said as she hugged him, “How nice to see you again.”

The relief he felt was indescribable. He squeezed her back. “The feeling’s mutual, Mrs. Pena. You look great.”

She didn’t linger in the hug, but quickly pulled away and gave him an efficient once over. “Henry, you clean up nicely. You’re a very handsome man without the battle scars.”

“Okay, now you’re just embarrassing me,” he said, glancing at the surrounding tables.

“Well, I suppose it’s possible you’re only handsome by comparison. Last time I saw you, you didn’t exactly cut a stunning figure, and your face was as purple as a circus clown.”

“Yes, I remember that pretty clearly.”

“You’re a little overdressed for the occasion, though. Don’t you think?”

He smoothed his tie. “Well, I just came from a funeral.”

“A funeral?” Her lasers instantly bored into him.

“Yes, back in Gallup.”

“Gallup?”

He nodded. “Yes. Strange, isn’t it?”

“Family?”

“Friend.”

She smiled curiously. “You’re from Riverside. Odd you’d have a friend in Gallup.”

“Defiance, actually,” he said carefully, “But you’re right. It is an odd thing. I didn’t go there for the funeral specifically. It was just an unfortunate coincidence.”

“Who was it?”

“His name was Clarence Carson. He was someone I met the same day I met you.”

Her smile widened. “I see. Another person of interest, no?”

He laughed. “Extreme interest, yes.”

“I understand, Henry. You needn’t tell me anymore.”

He was certain she did understand.

“Shall we sit?” she said.

He scooted around the table and pulled the chair out for her. When she was seated, he returned to his own.

“You’re a handsome man, Henry,” she said again.

“Why, Mrs. Pena,” he said, grinning, “I didn’t realize you were such a flirt.”

Her smile evaporated. “I’m old enough to be your big sister.”

He laughed. She didn’t. Same old Ximena J. Pena.

She waited patiently as the waiter filled her water glass. “The last time I saw you,” she said to Henry, “You were sporting a respectable shiner.”

“So you’ve said. It got better.”

“I’m pleased to see that.”

The waiter turned to Henry. “Now, sir?”

Henry looked up at him. His badge said Raul. “Raul… look, I’m sorry about earlier.”

“Earlier?”

“I was short. No, I was just plain rude. I apologize.” He meant it.

“There is no need, sir.”

“There’s definitely a need. I’m not really myself today. I’m a little anxious, and I’ve never been a nice guy when I’m anxious. You did nothing wrong. My dark side was driving.”

The waiter grinned as he handed them their menus. “I know, sir.”

Henry just looked at him. Mrs. Pena laughed.

“Not to worry, sir,” Raul said as he pulled out his pad and clicked his pen into action, “Comes with the territory. It doesn’t mean a thing. People usually have more on their minds than lunch. In my business, you get over it or you go broke.”

“I wish I could learn to walk that road,” Henry said.

“We all do,” Mrs. Pena said.

They placed their orders. The waiter smiled and nodded, then collected their menus. Henry watched him walking away.

“You’re doing so well, Henry. I’m really proud of you.”

He felt himself blush. “Not so good,” he said, looking at the departing waiter again, “I still snap for no good reason. Someday I’ll learn to think before I speak.”

“We’ve talked so much over the phone I feel like we’ve known each other for years.”

“Once again, the feeling’s mutual. I owe you more than I can ever repay, Mrs. Pena. There’s no way I can ever make us even.”

She patted his hand. “Let’s start with you calling me Ximena. Okay?”

“Sure. Thanks. Ximena. It’s a great name.”

“Your therapist tells me you’ve made more ground in four months and nine days than most people do in a year.”

She knew the time down to the day. Why did that surprise him?

“I was motivated.” He drew his finger around the rim of his glass as he thought about it. “That day I called you? I was in a pretty bad place.”

She leaned forward and squeezed his hand. “I know you were, Henry.”

“If it hadn’t been for our meeting that weekend, I think I may have…”

“I don’t think so. You’re not the easy-out kind, Henry. You prefer to run uphill. You would’ve killed yourself eventually without intervention, but you’d have done it indirectly. If I had to guess, I’d go with an automobile accident. Or maybe irritating someone into beating you to death.”

“Uh, yeah,” Henry said with a laugh, “Thanks for the visual. Here’s an idea, let’s not try to guess how Henry might’ve gotten himself offed.”

“You’re right. Bad luck, that.”

“Very bad.”

“There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you, Henry. Something I just never felt right doing on the phone. I would like to ask you now.”

“There’s nothing you can’t ask me,” he said, “I’ve never felt safer with anyone in my life.”

“You remember that night at the rest area?”

“I could forget that?”

“Do you remember me advising you to talk to your Mother?”

He nodded. “I do. Clearly.”

She waited. Her lasers were locked on him.

“You want to know if I did,” he said carefully.

She continued waiting.

“The night before I called you, I…” He thought about it. He what? What was it? What could he say that wouldn’t affirm his lunacy? He settled on, “I had an experience.”

“An experience,” she repeated.

“Well, my therapist has a name for it that I can’t recall at this moment. But in my world? I pretty sure most people would call it a psychotic episode.” He let slip a laugh that didn’t even convince him.

“A psychotic episode.” She took a sip from her water. “Well, you’re not one to understate things, are you?”

The waiter brought their salads. Mrs. Pena smiled at Henry, then immediately began to eat.

“Shall I continue?” he said.

“Of course.”

She dug into her salad with surprising zeal. For such a little bird, she seemed to take her eating seriously. Henry found it oddly endearing. In contrast, he had no appetite at all. He took a ceremonial bite, but had a secret plan to abandon it after that.

“Well,” he said after a bit, “You can imagine I was in pretty sorry shape that morning. I’d been up for more than a day, and you know the condition I was in the day before that. I was more than a little tired.”

“I would suppose you were.”

“I made up for it, though, I guess. I slept for over twenty-four hours after my little breakdown.”

“What happened that morning you got back, Henry?”

“I did as you said. I talked to my Mother. A picture of her, anyway. Or… I guess I should say she, uh… she talked to me.”

“My, that sounds like an interesting twist.”

Henry thought about that night. He remembered her picture. He remembered her eyes, her smile, her voice as she directed him to bury his dead. He knew it was some kind of weird hallucination, but at the time, it’d sure as hell seemed real.

“Henry?”

Her voice startled him. “Sorry,” he said, “I drifted.”

“I noticed.”

“It’s harder than I expected,” he said carefully, “It doesn’t translate into a story very easily.”

“I understand. You may take your time.”

“You say that like you’re my teacher.”

She smiled at that. “I am, Henry.”

“Thanks. I think you’re one of only two people in the world I could ever tell this story to. Besides my therapist, of course. I know you won’t think I’m a complete nut job.”

“Well, let’s not get too cocky.”

He laughed most sincerely at that. And then he told her everything.


SIXTY THREE

HENRY ACCEPTED THE COFFEE HE DIDN’T WANT, THEN STEPPED OUTSIDE.

He found a seat at one of the curbside tables and got into position. Perry Street was a wide and mostly lazy street lined with young but hopeful trees. An adequate line of landscaping foliage arose up before the curb beside him, providing him a buffer from the street proper. It allowed him to safely and discretely observe the shop sitting exactly across the street from him at the end of a perfectly manicured cobblestone crosswalk.

The clock on the faux antique street lamp said it was nine thirty-seven. Her shop’s sign clearly stated it opened at ten. He didn’t have long to wait.

He slipped off his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes. The sun felt like a stranger up here at altitude. It seemed more silvery than yellow, like looking at a huge star. Then again, pretty much everything seemed different up here. He got short of breath just looking at stairs, and the air was so dry, downing a gallon of water a day still left him chronically thirsty.

He unfolded his newspaper, spread it across the table, and made no attempt to read it. It was all he could manage just to look at the pictures. Even the headlines seemed elusive. His mind was a storm of worries and hopes. How could anyone concentrate with so much at stake? The best he could offer the paper was to pretend to read it, which wasn’t as easy in practice as it sounded in theory.

He slipped his sunglasses back on and looked up at the street clock again. Nine thirty-nine. Grief, it was going to be a long day. To make it worse, he was probably wasting his time anyway. Why didn’t he just march over to that store, pound confidently on the door, seize her before she could recover from her astonished silence, and kiss her like he’d never let her go?

The same old answer crackled through his mind like a skipping record: Because you have no right to.

He probably didn’t even have the right to talk to her, or to be on her street, or even in her city. Hell, he probably didn’t have the right to be in her bloody state! He’d left her behind (or rather, she’d left him behind at his insistence) without so much as a promise to write. He hadn’t even gotten her last name! He’d treated her harshly, and he had no right whatsoever to expect or even ask for forgiveness. Not after four months and change. Not after all he’d dumped on her.

He only had one card in his hand, and it sure as hell wasn’t much: He had hope. Hope, a freshly dry-cleaned sports coat, and a nice tie. Maybe he could make a good second first-impression. Maybe it wasn’t too late after all. Maybe she wasn’t already with someone else. Maybe she didn’t loathe him and his self-centered cowardice. Maybe she’d grown another head.

He dropped his face to the paper and groaned.

“Excuse me, but you’re in my spot.”

Henry sat up so quickly, his neck wrenched. A man stood across the table from him. He wore a green, long sleeved turtleneck shirt on a seventy-eight degree morning. He had a cup of coffee and fork in one hand, a muffin on a plate in the other, a paper under his arm, and a ponytail on his back. And he was glaring down at him like Henry had just crapped in his yard.

“You’re in my spot,” the man said again.

“I’m sorry?”

“You’re in my spot.”

Henry looked around at the tables and patrons scattered down the sidewalk behind him. Then he looked back up at the man. “Your spot? What do you mean, your spot?”

The man studied him a moment. He looked like he was trying to figure out if Henry was stupid or just annoying. “This is my spot,” he said again, “This corner. This table. You’re in my spot.”

“Are you serious?”

“Do I look like I’m joking?”

The man the softest voice he’d ever heard, and a hawkish face that was lined with all the worries of a probable lifetime of OCD. His long, graying hair was tied back too tightly, like an aging rocker who refuses to give up his habits, because, after all, they’re habits.

“Let me get this straight,” Henry said because he couldn’t not say it, “When you say this is your spot, do you mean the chair, the table or the corner?”

“Precisely right.”

Henry leaned back in his chair. He dragged his hair back across his head and looked at the guy. “Wow,” he said, finally, “This is a conundrum, isn’t it?”

“I don’t see how so.”

“Well, I mean, this is a public place. I don’t see any signs designating this as the long-haired hippy guy’s seat. So, pardon my ignorance, but how can this be your spot?”

The man’s eyes clouded in confusion. It didn’t last. “It’s always been my spot,” he said like it was too obvious to elaborate on.

Henry watched the man watching him. The guy actually looked quite concerned about the standoff. Then, just as he was about to sling another obstacle into the guy’s path, he felt his resistance abruptly melt.

What the hell was he doing? The guy might be nuts or he might just be focused. Either way, what was there to gain by baiting him? After all he’d experienced over the last months, shouldn’t charity be his first line of attack? If this was the guy’s usual table, who the hell was he to stand in his way?

Henry slipped his chair back and looked at the man, and he smiled as sincerely as he could manage. “I apologize,” he said, “Rude comes as naturally to me as stink on a skunk.” He gestured to the chair across the table. “You’re welcome to sit here with me, if you like. There’s plenty of room.”

“I don’t believe you understand. That is my spot. You’re in my spot.”

Henry followed the pointing finger back to himself. And then he got it. “Oh, the chair. You mean this particular chair is your spot.”

The man nodded. “Yes.”

Henry stood up. “No worries, my friend. I’ll concede to your squatter’s rights. But I’m sitting right there.” He pointed at the opposing chair.

The man looked at the chair. Then he looked at Henry. He didn’t appear happy about the offer.

“It’s not negotiable,” Henry pressed, “There aren’t any other seats, and I really need to sit here. I mean, I really, really need to sit here. Right here.”

To his surprise, the man finally nodded and said, “Very well. I expect that will have to be fine. I mean to say I understand.”

With that, Henry took his coffee and his paper and moved to the opposite seat.

The street clock said nine fifty-nine. He peered through the foliage at the shop across Perry Street. The sign in the window still insisted it was closed.

He returned to the man sitting across from him. The guy had his coffee, his muffin on a plate, and his napkin and fork all neatly arranged in a perfect square in front of him. It looked quite specific in its layout. Henry suddenly felt like his own issues weren’t so bad after all.

Then again, he was skulking behind a shrubbery, staking out a clothing store in a strange city a thousand miles from home. And all because he was too cowardly to face the woman he thought he probably loved, because she might end up sending him on his merry way.

No, he decided, he had absolutely nothing over the ponytailed guy.

Well, no time like the present to make amends. He held his hand out toward the man. “My name’s Henry.”

The guy froze in mid-sip. He looked at Henry’s hand. After a moment, he put the cup down. “Hi, I’m Dave.” He wiggled his fingers toward the proffered hand, but made no attempt to take it.

“It’s good to meet you, Dave.”

“Mm hm.” Dave quickly retreated to his square.

This was perfect. It was the perfect company on the perfect day for his execution. It was exactly as he deserved.

“That muffin looks good,” he said to Dave.

Dave froze at mid-bite. His eyes were locked on Henry. He looked like he was trying to think of something to say to that.

Henry leaned back in his chair and sighed. What the hell was he doing? He deserved mercy the way a miser deserves a handout. “Good grief,” he said as he rubbed his eyes in the meat of his palm, “We really are all Bozos on this bus, don’t you think?”

To his shock, Dave broke into a smile at that. “Firesign Theater,” he said quickly, “Columbia Records. Nineteen seventy-one.”

Henry didn’t know what to say. No one in this day and age knew what Firesign Theater was. No one! He was about to profess his awe when he saw Alice.

An ice bomb exploded in his stomach.

He saw her through the shrubs dressing the curb. She strolled down the block on the other side of the street, sashaying along the sidewalk like she was walking on water. She walked the same way she swam, effortlessly and with grace to spare. She wore a bright white sundress that, just like everything else she wore, wasn’t nearly worthy of its station.

She glanced casually in his direction. He practically fell out of his chair. He hunched forward over his knees. He peeked back up in time to see her stop at the front door of the White Queen’s Habits directly across the street from him. She unlocked the door, but then paused. She slowly turned around and surveyed the street. Her eyes swept past Henry, then back again.

Finally, she went inside. He watched the Closed sign sweep around to Open. No trumpets blew, no angels sang.

Henry slipped back into his seat and dropped his head onto the table. He couldn’t breathe. He felt dizzy and frail, like he’d been given the first injection of a lethal cocktail and only had to hold on for the promised effect. He just couldn’t do this. He couldn’t bear the possibility that she might reject him. No, make that castigate him severely, shame him to the depth of his pride, and then reject him. But he also couldn’t leave. He had to see her. He had to!

What the hell was he going to do? He felt about as shackled as he’d ever felt in his life. He had no options. He was deadman walking. It was all going to end badly, so very badly, a cheesy TV drama with Henry bowing in shame at the end.

“Are you all right, Henry?”

The words startled him. He raked his hair back and threw a quick look around his surroundings. Nothing had changed, but nothing seemed the same. He felt like he was in a vacuum, like he was drifting through space with only the frayed end of his severed tether in his hand.

Dave leaned a notch closer. “You don’t look well. Are you all right?”

“Sure,” Henry said, “Of course, yeah. I’m absolutely all right.” He’d never been less all right.

“Do you know our Alice?”

The words landed like a slap. “What?”

Dave looked over at the White Queen, then back at Henry. “I said do you know Alice?”

“Alice?” Henry stammered, “Who? No. Sort of. I mean… yeah. In a way.”

“You’re not a very decisive person, are you, Henry?”

Henry choked on that. Time to go. He grabbed his coffee and stood up, taking care to keep hidden behind the foliage. “It’s been nice talking to you, Dave.”

“Sure. I’ll see you around, Henry.”

“Sure.”

Henry bent low and skulked past the shrubbery. Several feet out, he stopped and slugged his thigh. Then he turned and skulked back to the table.

“Dave,” he whispered.

Dave looked a little worried. “Yes?” he said tentatively.

“Thanks for sharing your spot with me.”

“Mm… sure, Henry,” he said, “No problem. Thanks for being flexible.”

“You’re welcome,” Henry said. He watched Dave for a moment, then nodded before turning away to resume his skulk.


SIXTY FOUR

HENRY WALKED OUT OF THE COFFEE SHOP AND INTO A SURGE OF IRRITATION.

The only available table was Dave’s. Again. He drew in a sigh and resolved to do what he had to. He sat down at the table anyway, taking care to sit in the proper chair this time. He put the coffee and paper down and looked up at the street clock. Nine forty-seven.

Day Two of Henry’s indecision.

Man, he was some piece of work. His stomach was all a-jitter. He hadn’t eaten boo in the past two days, and he’d been drinking coffee like it was an elixir. He couldn’t even dress himself. This morning he’d decided the tie was too much. Today it was just a sports jacket and black tee. After all, she’d only ever seen him wearing vomit, a Superman tee, or nothing at all. He didn’t want to come off as pretentious at their reunion.

He looked up at the clock. Nine forty-eight.

“Excuse me, but you’re in my spot.”

Henry nearly fell out of his chair. He twisted around to see Dave standing over him. “What now?”

“You’re in my spot.”

“Dave, I’m in the chair you directed me to yesterday.”

“Today’s Friday.”

“Yeah?”

“Yesterday was Thursday. I face south on Thursdays. Today’s Friday.”

The words spun around in Henry’s head. Today’s Friday. It didn’t make sense, but in the end he just didn’t have the energy for another debate. “Where do you want me, Dave?” he asked carefully, “And don’t tell me another table. There aren’t any.”

Dave looked at the opposing chair.

Henry moved.

Dave sat in the spot he’d vacated. Henry watched him arranging his coffee, muffin on a plate, napkin, and fork. He assembled them in the same square formation, but the items were switched left to right so that they mirrored their position from the previous day.

Henry straightened out the newspaper that he was never going to read and again considered that maybe his own issues weren’t so complicated after all.

“How’d you sleep, Henry?”

Henry looked up to see Dave smiling at him. “Uh… good. Good. Thanks. You?”

“Oh, I don’t sleep much,” Dave said, “Too much noise in the shadows at night. And of course, there are the trains.”

“I see,” Henry said. He didn’t. And he didn’t want to.

He peered over his shoulder through the foliage just in time to see Alice coming down the street. He slipped a little lower in his chair. She wore a blue sundress today. Her brilliant yellow hair was tied in one of those Dr. Seuss ponytails that stick straight up in the air. She was so beautiful it hurt to look at her. She looked like she might’ve put on a little weight. It was good.

She stopped at the shop entrance, put in the key, twisted the lock, and opened the door. Then, just like the morning before, she paused and turned, and she carefully swept the street with her eyes. This time he was sure she’d spotted him.

He hunkered lower. She seemed to be looking directly at him. But then, to his overwhelming relief, she pulled back and went into her store. The Closed sign gave its post back to Open.

Henry found his seat again. He swiped a hand across his forehead and looked at it. His palm was wet. He was sweating? Things were even worse than he thought. He never sweated. Never!

“Why are you so afraid of Alice, Henry?”

Henry jumped. He glanced around, hoping no one caught his squeal. Then he looked at Dave. “I’m not afraid of Alice,” he said with a laugh that was too high pitched by an octave, “I can’t believe you’d say that. It’s ridiculous.”

Dave studied him very closely. “You told me you only sort of knew her, Henry.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Sort of, Henry. You said sort of.”

“Got it, Dave. What’s your point?”

“If you only sort of know her, why do you hide whenever she comes to work?”

“Hide? That’s ridiculous. I’m not hiding, Dave. I was just checking out these flowers here.”

Dave looked at the shrubbery that boasted no flowers at all. He gave Henry a look that suggested this might be a good time to change tables. “Are you stalking her, Henry?”

“What?”

“Are. You. Stalking her?”

“No, Dave. Don’t be ridiculous. Do I look like a stalker?”

“You shouldn’t try to lie to me, Henry. I can smell a lie the way a bee smells pollen.”

Henry just looked at him.

“Do you understand me, Henry?”

“I don’t think bees actually smell things, Dave.”

“You ever ask one?”

Henry just shook his head. “Look, Dave… don’t make a production of it. It’s not a big deal. I sort of know Alice, and I sort of like to hide from her, because I’m sort of afraid of her.”

Dave continued to study him.

“What?” Henry said.

“You’re not wearing a tie today, Henry.”

Henry reflexively grabbed his shirt. “What?” he said, looking down, “No. Of course not. It’s Friday. I never wear a tie on Friday.”

Dave’s expression darkened just a spit. “Are you making fun of me, Henry?”

Henry was. And he wasn’t sure if he suddenly felt like such a fool because he had been making fun or because he’d been caught making fun.

“I’m sorry, Dave,” he said carefully, “I’m… on edge today. I’ve been on edge all week. I sometimes get a little mean when I’m tense. I apologize. It’s a flaw I’m actively working on.”

Dave’s expression was indecisive. He seemed to be trying to decide if Henry was still playing him. Then he relaxed. “That’s okay, Henry. I understand. I appreciate the apology. Consider it accepted. I’d write it down, except it’s Friday.”

“Write it down?”

“I collect them.”

“What?”

“Apologies, of course.”

Henry slowly nodded. “Of course.”

“Except on Fridays. I don’t write anything down on Fridays. Everyone needs a day off.”

“Okey dokey, then.”

“Anyway,” Dave said as he cut a bite from his muffin, “I still appreciate it. You’re a very polite person. I admire polite people.”

“No problem, Dave,” Henry said, “I was rude, and I despise rude people. I really mean that.” He totally meant it.

“You’re trying too hard.”

That gave Henry pause. “I’m sorry?”

“You’re trying too hard, Henry.”

“To do what?”

Dave shrugged and returned to his muffin. “Forget it. It’s not my place.”

“I’m not even sure what you’re talking about, Dave.”

Dave leaned back in his seat. He was smiling far too politely. “I’m serious,” he said, “It’s none of my business. Please forget I said anything. I don’t know Alice that well, anyway. I shouldn’t dare speak for her.”

Henry’s curiosity was irreversibly piqued. He watched Dave methodically devouring his muffin. He’d cut a bite, take a sip of coffee, pat his mouth with his napkin, and then insert the bite in his mouth. Rinse and repeat. It looked like a hell of a lot of work.

“Seriously, what are you talking about, Dave?” Henry asked after a bit, “What am I’m trying too hard at?”

“Truly, it’s not my place, Henry. Forget I said anything.”

“I can’t just make myself forget something. I’d much prefer it if you’d just go ahead and say it. I mean, we’re pals now, right?”

Dave gave him a look that was not a confirmation.

Henry glanced around at the other patrons. No one seemed to be watching. He leaned toward Dave and whispered, “What exactly am I trying too hard at?”

Dave sat back and grinned at him. It was a harmless, friendly grin with no obvious agenda lurking behind it. It was, however, a grin that might be standing on a dais of knowledge. Henry suddenly had to know.

“Dave, come on,” Henry said to him, “I’ve met a lot of people these past months. People I’d never have any other occasion to know outside of the quirkiness of the circumstances we were thrown into.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. They’ve mostly been brief acquaintances, but they each seemed to have a gift for me. Every one of those encounters has changed my life, do you understand?” He thought of T. “Well, almost every one.”

“That’s very interesting, Henry.”

“I’m serious, Dave.”

“I can see that, Henry.”

“So, you’re probably wondering what exactly I gleaned from those chance encounters, aren’t you? I mean, what was so important about those chance meetings that I’m talking to a complete stranger about them?”

“Not so much, Henry.”

“What I gleaned is there’s no such thing as a chance encounter. Everything happens for a reason. Everyone has something they can share with you. And if you’re lucky, if you’re really, really lucky, it might turn out that you have something you can share back with them.”

“I see.”

“So, please, Dave,” Henry said, leaning deeper into the table, “What do you mean when you say I’m trying too hard?”

Dave looked across the street at the door of the White Queen’s Habits, and then he looked back at Henry. “All right, Henry,” he said softly, “I’m telling you this because I like you and I like Alice more. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“Very well, then. Here’s what it is. Not to cut too fine a point, but you should lose the image.”

“The image?”

“The look. The style. The outfit. The… not-you.”

Henry looked down at his expensively dry-cleaned jacket, his meticulously ironed black tee shirt, and his ridiculously polished shoes. And it all became so utterly and embarrassingly obvious to him, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it himself.

“You should come back dressed as Henry,” Dave said to him, “And then you should go over to her. Not to be rude, but you should probably grow a pair.”

Henry felt weak. He realized with some alarm that his hands were actually shaking. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so insecure and inadequate and absolutely alone. But even as he thought it, he knew exactly when he’d last felt this way. It was when he watched Fort Drift accelerating down the on-ramp without him.

He swallowed back the dryness and looked at Dave. “Thank you,” he whispered.

Dave shrugged.

“No. I mean it. Thank you.”

“It’s not a big deal. It’s just one of those things. A certain, fragile moment. It’ll surely never happen again.”

“Let me guess,” Henry said seriously, “You’ve got a sense about people, right?”

“Certainly not.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“I only have a sense about you.”

Henry stopped laughing. It was a perfect circle. “Of course, you do,” he said, looking at Dave, “It fits perfectly. I mean that most sincerely.”

“It’s nothing, Henry,” Dave said, “Now, please get away from my table.”


SIXTY FIVE

HENRY WATCHED ALICE STROLL UP TO THE DOOR OF HER SHOP.

He couldn’t take his eyes from her as she expertly inserted the key into the lock. The sun shone down on her like there was no other creature left on all of God’s earth deserving of such radiance. And when she disappeared into the shadows of that shop, it felt like the world had plunged back into darkness.

Henry dropped back into his chair. He was breathless. Day Three in Purgatory. Day bloody three! He had to do this today. There wouldn’t be any other chance. He had to go to her today and profess his love and devotion, and beg for her mercy and her forgiveness of all the ways he’d wronged her.

Or he had to crawl back under the rock of his life and give her up for good.

He leaned back in his chair. His hands trembled. Again. His heart played his ribs like a drum. Again. And he was actually sweating. Sweating! Again!

He swiped the hair back from his face. He had to do this. He had to get up now. He had to march on over there and do it. He had to do it right now, right this very moment! He had to do it now!

He took a sip of his coffee.

“You’re in my spot.”

“Dave,” he said without looking up, “You really need to leave me a schedule, dude.”

Dave took the chair across from him. “Just kidding, Henry. How are you doing today? You look about as miserable as usual.”

“Your sense of observation is unworldly, Dave. Truth is I don’t have a clue how I am.”

Dave carefully laid his morning out before him. It was a square, same order as yesterday. “I must say, you’re looking pretty good today, Henry,” he said as he inspected him, “Is that an Alice original?”

Henry ran his fingers over the seam in his Superman emblem. “It is indeed, Dave. This little number has quite the history behind it, too.”

“Stand up, Henry,” he said, “Let us have a look.”

Henry slipped his chair back and stood up. He looked down at his uniform: Superman shirt, Alice dress pants complete with the red and blue Jerry Garcia ribbon running along the seams, no belt, and roughed up black dress shoes, one of which was slightly twisted with a nice crease running across it.

“You are going to blow her away, Henry,” Dave said.

“Wait, check this out,” Henry said, hoisting his pant legs a bit, “This is the crème de la crème.”

“What? No socks? Henry, you are so daring!”

“Yeah, it’s a sentimental thing. Takes me back to the day, you know?”

“I’m sure.”

“The whole ensemble is dramatically, cleaner, of course. Than the last time she saw me, I mean?”

“Well, of course,” Dave said, “Turn around, let me get the whole picture.”

Henry complied, arms straight out, head held high, turning slowly and dramatically, as if he were waltzing his way down the runway.

The world fell abruptly quiet. Henry stopped and looked around. The tables surrounding them were flooded with dozens of matching sets of eyes, all of which were aimed straight at him. He looked from one uncertain face to the next. They all broadcast the same question to him: Why can’t these guys ever manage to stay on their meds?

“What?” Henry asked them all, with arms still outstretched, “This is an important fashion statement here. I’ll have you know this is a White Queen’s Habits original made by the lovely Alice herself. It’s probably worth more than your stinking suits.”

The people continued to stare at him.

“Seriously,” he said, turning with his arms still out, “You should all be deeply envious! I’m the—”

“Land sakes! I just adore a man in uniform!”

Henry froze. He looked down at Dave, who smiled up at him from across the table. Then he silently mouthed, “Alice?”

Dave nodded.

“Behind me?” he said, again in silence.

Dave laughed. And then he nodded.

Henry felt paralyzed. The experience was unworldly. He was simultaneously thrilled and mortified. Then he turned his head just slightly, and said, “Alice?”

“Yes, Henry.”

That voice. Her voice!

He was suddenly lost. He didn’t know what to do. Time seized and shuddered. He felt like he was in a dream without control of his limbs.

“Why don’t you turn around, Henry,” he heard her say, “Let me drink you in.”

The sound of her voice gave him courage. He did as she told him.

The first and only thing he saw was her eyes. They were the same deep, brilliant, breathtaking kryptonite green he remembered. Looking into them felt like standing too close to a bonfire, like if he moved even an inch closer he’d be consumed by them.

She had her hands on her mouth. Her eyes glistened wet. “My goodness,” she said through her fingers, “You look so handsome.”

Henry ran his fingers over the seam in his emblem. “It’s… uh, it’s clean, too,” he said nervously, “I had it… well, pressed, I guess. Because you know how anal I am.”

Her smile channeled the sun. It was blinding to look at. “Well, it wouldn’t do to be flying around in a wrinkled uniform, would it?” she said, giggling.

“Oh, hell no!” he said, “I mean, what would the other superheroes say? You know what I mean? There goes SuperHenry in his wrinkled, vomit covered uniform again. Oh, and my, look at that… no socks. Again!”

“I think you look wonderful,” she whispered through her fingers, “No other superhero could possibly compare.”

He took a step toward her. He realized he was still fingering the seam in his emblem, and ordered his hands to his side. “I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long, Alice. I’m sorry I didn’t call or—”

“You don’t have to explain, Henry.”

“I’ve… I’ve been working things out,” he said carefully, “Therapy, you know? Working the problems? I couldn’t come back before I knew if I was… I don’t know. Fixable. I guess.”

“I knew you’d come, Henry,” she said, inching closer, “So did Nancy. We never doubted it, not for a moment. I knew I only had to wait for you.”

He moved closer to her. His knees weakened with each tentative step. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, “I hope… I just hope you’ll forgive me. I hope you’ll think about letting me back in. I’m not the man I was, I swear it. I’m better than that.”

“I know, Henry.”

“I buried my dead, just like you said. I’m putting the past where it belongs. I don’t want any of that darkness anymore. I want you, Alice. I love—”

Alice flew into his arms. He buried himself in her arms and neck and hair, and held her tight. And for the first time in a very, very long time, he felt like all the hope he’d struggled to hold onto these past months might actually have wings.


SIXTY SIX

ALICE HELD HIM LIKE THE SUN HOLDS THE EARTH.

She held him like it was her sole reason for existing, and he accepted every bit of her.

A light wind kicked up, gently rustling the leaves of the cherry trees standing post along the wide sidewalk. She slipped out of his arms with such tenderness that he wasn’t even sure they’d separated. Then she took his hand and his arm, and they walked together through the shade of the sidewalk beside the little park. The breeze was cool and refreshing, the early sun bright and rejuvenating. The morning was in full bloom.

It was a moment so exact, so flawless, so utterly perfectly destined, Henry knew this had to be that one singular moment in his existence that justified everything he’d ever done or ever would do in his entire life. This moment was the reason he existed at all.

“I knew you’d come back to me,” Alice whispered into his arm.

“I can’t tell you how I missed you,” he said to her, “I know it sounds corny and all, but thinking about you is what kept me motivated. I thought about you day and night. I never didn’t think about you. If you’d told me to take a hike back there at the coffee shop, I think I’d have ceased to exist.”

“I know, Henry. We were together a whole year, after all. It’s difficult to walk away from that kind of investment.”

“Your words saved me, Alice. I mean that. It was you that gave me the strength to bury Zoe. It wasn’t just love or desire for you, it was more like purpose. Knowing you showed me that I had a purpose bigger than self-loathing.”

“I don’t think it was Zoe, Henry. I think she’s been buried a long time. You just had to cut loose your guilt. I know it wasn’t easy. I’m sure it won’t ever be easy.”

He laughed. “Well… you need to know I’m going to be in therapy a while. There’s plenty of sludge that needs to be bailed out yet, including a whole family chest of drawers to sort through.”

“I know that, dear. I’m not afraid.”

He put his arm around her and reeled her in tighter. It felt so natural to be with her again, to be holding her again.

“What I’m telling you,” he said carefully, “Is that there will be bumps ahead. I’m not Mr. Rogers. I’ll never be perfect. I’m not cut from that kind of cloth. But I’ll never stop trying to be. You’ve every right on earth to doubt me and send me packing.”

She laughed. “Mr. Rogers is about the last person I want. I’d take Herman Munster first.”

“Excellent!”

“And I’ll never have to send you packing. Some things are meant to be. You’re home, Henry. You can stop looking for the exit, now.”

“I know.”

They walked on for a few minutes in contemplative silence. After a bit, he said, “I’m starting a new business. My own company.”

“Fantastic, Henry!”

“I sold my condo. Actually, I sold pretty much everything I owned. I’ve got enough money to live a few years if need be, and I’ll be the only employee in the new start up, so I can run the business anywhere. I won’t need a headquarters, per se.”

“How convenient. I always said you were brilliant.”

“So I’m thinking Castle Rock might be a good place to launch it.”

She stopped and turned up to him. “Castle Rock?”

He felt a strange pang of embarrassment. Maybe he’d made a mistake. Maybe he’d made a horribly erroneous assumption. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe he was an idiot!

“You mean, here?” she said, smiling coyly, “With me? You’d do that?”

And just like that, she made him solid again. His eyes rushed hot, but he fought it back. “It’s the only place left, Alice,” he whispered, “The rest of the world is a… a wasteland.”

“Too full of burning wreckage,” she said.

He nodded. “Pretty much.”

She buried herself into him again.

He pulled her in tight. Then he pinched a little tuft of the skin on her side. “Alice, we’re putting on a little weight, yeah?”

“Yeah,” she said into his chest.

“It’s nice. You were too skinny before. You look good in it.”

“I hope so, Henry.” She slipped her face up into his neck and whispered, “I think it’s going to be there for a while.”

“Hm, that sounds like a plan. You’re doing it intentionally?” He immediately regretted that. “I’m sorry, that sounded back-handed. You look fantastic. I didn’t mean—”

She put her hand over his mouth and laughed. “No, Henry, I didn’t take it that way. I know I’m not fat or anything. It’s just a little extra weight, no biggie.” Her hand slid free of his mouth and parked on his chest, her fingers splayed across his Superman emblem.

“Whew,” he said, “For a moment I thought I’d really screwed up. What was it Beth said back at the cliffs? Remember? About men needing to tread carefully before—”

“Do you remember my note?”

“What?” That was a solid right turn. He understood that he would never have his balance around her, and he liked it. “Yes. Of course, I remember. I’m wearing it.”

“Do you remember that I wrote that I still adored you?”

“I could forget that? It brought me to my knees, Alice.”

“And you remember our last night? In the tent, I mean? You remember how we ended it?”

He felt himself blush, and was surprised by it. “Yes, Alice. Of course, I remember.”

She took his hands and pulled him closer. “And do you remember I told you in the note that you hadn’t left anything burning behind you? With me, I mean?”

He tensed at that. “Yes,” he said carefully.

She looked up at him, but said nothing. The weight of her eyes felt like a mountain landing on him. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe. Her green lasers were firing at full strength.

“What… what is it?” he said. He hoped she wouldn’t respond. He was terrified she would respond. What if he was misreading all this? What if she was actually going to send him back to the curb? What if this moment was the end of—

“I may have lied,” she said abruptly, “Just a bit.”

He couldn’t put her words in focus. “I don’t understand,” he said. He so didn’t.

She pulled his hands around behind her and pressed her belly into him. “I said I lied,” she said smiling. “You didn’t leave any wreckage, but turns out you may have left a wee fire burning, after all.”

THE END


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