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.
“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,” 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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
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?”
“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.
“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?”
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?”
“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.”